The Scottish Prisoner (Page 19)

The Scottish Prisoner (Lord John Grey #3)(19)
Author: Diana Gabaldon

Chains, he thought, and knew that if he lingered on that thought for more than an instant, he’d find himself in the dream again, sweating and ill, crouched against a stone wall, unable to lift his hand to wipe the vomit from his beard, the fetters too heavy, the metal hot from his fever, inescapable, eternal captivity …

“No,” he said fiercely, and turned abruptly off the path, coming to a halt in front of a puppet show, surrounded by people, all calling out and laughing. Noise. Color. Anything to fill his senses, to keep the clank of chains at bay.

Quinn was still talking, but Jamie ignored him, affecting to watch the play before them. He’d seen things like this in Paris, often. Wee puppets posturing and squeaking. These were long-nosed, ugly ones, shouting in shrill insult and hitting one another with sticks.

He was breathing easier now, dizziness and fear leaving him as the sheer ordinariness of the day closed round him like warm water. Punchinello—that was the man-puppet’s name—and his wife was Judy. She had a stick, Judy did, and tried to strike Punch on the head with it, but he seized the stick. She whipped it up, and Punch, clinging to it, sailed across the tiny stage with a long drawn-out “Shiiiiiit!” to crash against the wall. The crowd shrieked with delight.

Willie would like it, and at thought of the boy he felt at once much better and much worse.

He could get rid of Quinn without much trouble; the man couldn’t force him to go to Inchcleraun, after all. The Duke of Pardloe was another matter. He could force Jamie to go to Ireland, but at least that venture didn’t involve risking his neck or the possibility of lifelong imprisonment. He could do it, finish the job as quickly as possible, and then go back. To Helwater and Willie.

He missed the boy with a sudden pang, wishing he had Willie perched on his shoulders now, grabbing at his ears and giggling at the puppets. Would Willie remember him if he was gone for months?

Well, he’d just have to find Siverly fast. Because he was going back to Helwater.

He could feel the child’s imagined weight on his shoulders, warm and heavy, smelling faintly of wee and strawberry jam. There were some chains you wore because you wanted to.

“WHERE THE BLOODY HELL have you been?” Hal demanded without preamble. “And what in God’s name happened to you?” His eye roamed over Grey’s clothes, retrieved from the Beefsteak. The club’s steward had done his best, but the overall effect was shrunken, stained, faded, and generally far from fashionable.

“Not that it’s any of your business, but I got soaked in the rain and stopped the night with a friend,” Grey replied equably. He felt cheerful. Relaxed and solidly at peace. Not even Hal’s bad temper or the imminent prospect of meeting Jamie Fraser could disturb him. “And where is our guest?”

Hal drew in a long, exasperated breath.

“He’s sitting under a tree in the park.”

“What on earth for?”

“I haven’t the slightest idea. Harry Quarry came for tea—I was expecting you to be here, by the way”—Hal gave him an eyeball, which he ignored—“and when Fraser came in, he took one look at Harry and walked straight out of the house without a by-your-leave. I only know where he is because I’d told one of the footmen to follow him if he went out.”

“He’ll like that, I’m sure,” Grey said. “For God’s sake, Hal. Harry was governor at Ardsmuir before me; surely you knew that?”

Hal looked irritably blank. “Possibly. So?”

“He put Fraser in irons. For eighteen months—and left him that way when he came back to London.”

“Oh.” Hal considered that, frowning. “I see. How was I meant to know that, for heaven’s sake?”

“Well, you would have,” Grey replied crushingly, “if you’d had the common sense to tell me what the devil you were doing, rather than—oh, hallo, Harry. Didn’t know you were still here.”

“So I gathered. Where did Fraser go?”

Harry looked rather grim, Grey saw. And he was in full uniform. No bloody wonder Fraser had left; he’d likely seen Harry’s presence as a calculated insult, an attempt to further impress his own helplessness upon him.

This realization appeared to be dawning on Hal, too.

“Damn, Harry,” he said. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know you had a history with Fraser.”

History, Grey thought. One way of putting it. Just as well he hadn’t arrived in time for tea. He’d no idea what James Fraser might have done—confronted simultaneously and without warning by the man who’d put him in fetters, and by the one who’d had him flogged, in addition to the man who was currently blackmailing him—but whatever he might have done, Grey wouldn’t have blamed him for doing it.

“I’d asked Harry to come so that we might discuss the Siverly affair and so that Harry could tell you what—and who—he knows in Ireland,” Hal went on, turning to Grey. “But I didn’t think to tell Harry about Fraser ahead of time.”

“Not your fault, old man,” Harry said, gruff. He squared his shoulders and straightened his lapels. “I’d best go and talk to him, hadn’t I?”

“And say what, exactly?” Grey asked, out of sheer inability to imagine what could be said in the circumstances.

Harry shrugged. “Offer him satisfaction, if he likes. Don’t see that there’s much else to be done.”

The Grey brothers exchanged a look of perfect comprehension and suppressed horror. The implications of a duel between a regimental colonel and a paroled prisoner in the custody of the colonel of the regiment, putting aside the complete illegality of the proceedings, and the very real possibility that one of them might well kill or maim the other …

“Harry—” Hal began, in measured tones, but John interrupted him.

“I’ll be your second, Harry,” he said hastily. “If it’s necessary. I’ll go and … er … inquire about the arrangements, shall I?”

Not waiting for an answer, he pulled open the front door and ran down the steps, too fast for any following shouts to reach him. He dodged across Kensington Road, ducking under the nose of an oncoming horse and being roundly cursed by its rider, and stepped into the open precincts of Hyde Park, where he paused, heart hammering, to look around.

Fraser wasn’t immediately visible. After yesterday’s savage downpour, today had dawned soft and clear, with the kind of pale bright sky that made one long to be a bird. Consequently, there were large numbers of people in the park, families lounging and eating under the trees, couples strolling on the paths, and pickpockets hanging about the fringes of the crowds round the Speakers’ Corner and the Punch and Judy in hopes of an unguarded purse.

Ought he to go back and ask which footman had been following Fraser and where he’d last been seen? No, he decided, striding firmly into the park. He wasn’t about to give Harry or Hal a chance to interfere; they’d caused quite enough trouble already.

Given Fraser’s height and appearance, Grey had no doubt of his ability to pick the Scot out of any crowd. If he’d been sitting under a tree to begin with, he wasn’t doing it now. Where would he go, he wondered, if he were Fraser? If he’d been living for several years on a horse farm in the Lake District and, prior to that, in a remote Scottish prison?

Right. He turned at once in the direction of the Punch and Judy show and was gratified as he came in sight of it to see a tall, red-haired man at the back of the crowd, easily able to see over the sea of heads and plainly absorbed in the play before him.

He didn’t want to pull Fraser away from the entertainment, so kept a short distance away. Perhaps the play would put the Scot in better temper—though, hearing the shrieks from the crowd as Judy beat Punch into a cocked hat, he began to feel that the influence of the proceedings might not have quite the calmative effect he’d hoped for. He would himself pay considerable money for the privilege of seeing Fraser beat Hal into a cocked hat, though it would cause complications.

He kept one eye on Fraser, the other on the play. The puppet master, an Irishman, was both adroit with his puppets and inventive with his epithets, and Grey felt an unexpected flash of pleasure at seeing Fraser smile.

He leaned against a tree, a little distance away, enjoying the sense of temporary invisibility. He’d wondered how he’d feel, seeing Jamie Fraser in the flesh again, and was relieved to find that the episode in the stable at Helwater now seemed sufficiently distant that he could put it aside. Not forget it, unfortunately, but not have it be uppermost in his mind, either.

Now Fraser bent his head to one side, listening to something said to him by a thin, curly-headed man beside him, though without taking his eyes off the stage. The sight of the curls brought Percy briefly to mind, but Percy, too, was in the past, and he shoved the thought firmly down.

He hadn’t consciously thought what he’d say or how he might start the conversation, but when the play ended, he found himself upright and walking fast, so as to come onto the path slightly in front of Fraser as he turned back toward the edge of the park.

He had no notion what had led him to do this, to let the Scot make the first move, but it seemed natural, and he heard Fraser snort behind him, a small sound with which he was familiar; it signified something between derision and amusement.

“Good afternoon, Colonel,” Fraser said, sounding resigned as he swung into step beside Grey.

“Good afternoon, Captain Fraser,” he replied politely, and felt rather than saw Fraser’s startled glance at him. “Did you enjoy the show?”

“I thought I’d gauge how long my chain is,” Fraser said, ignoring the question. “Within sight o’ the house, is it?”

“For the moment,” Grey said honestly. “But I did not come to retrieve you. I have a message from Colonel Quarry.”

Fraser’s wide mouth tightened involuntarily. “Oh, aye?”

“He wishes to offer you satisfaction.”

“What?” Fraser stared at him blankly.

“Satisfaction for what injury you may have received at his hands,” Grey elaborated. “If you wish to call him out—he’ll come.”

Fraser stopped dead.

“He’s offering to fight a duel with me. Is that what ye’re saying?”

“Yes,” Grey said patiently. “I am.”

“Jesus God.” The big Scot stood still, ignoring the flow of pedestrians—all of whom gave him a wide, side-glancing berth—and rubbing a finger up and down the bridge of his nose. He stopped doing this and shook his head, in the manner of one dislodging flies.

“Quarry canna think ye’d let me. You and His Grace, I mean.”

Grey’s heart gave a slight jerk; Christ, he was thinking about it. Seriously.

“I personally have nothing to say regarding the matter,” he said politely. “As for my brother, he said nothing to me that indicated he would interfere.” Since he hadn’t had a chance. Christ, what would Hal do if Fraser did call Harry out? Besides kill Grey himself for not preventing it, that is.