The Scottish Prisoner (Page 4)

The Scottish Prisoner (Lord John Grey #3)(4)
Author: Diana Gabaldon

One of Hal’s brows flicked upward, but only momentarily.

“Just so,” he said dryly. “The question, though, is whether Fraser might be inclined to perform a similar service for you.”

Grey placed his cup carefully in the center of the desk.

“Only if he thought I might drown,” he said, and went out.

3

An Irishman, a Gentleman

Helwater

April 2

JAMIE DRESSED AND WENT DOWN TO FORK HAY FOR THE horses, disregarding the dark and the chill in his hands and feet as he worked. An Irishman. A gentleman.

Who the devil could that be? And—if the Irishman existed—what had he to do with Betty? He kent some Irishmen. Such Irish gentlemen as he knew, though, were Jacobites, who’d come to Scotland with Charles Stuart. That thought froze what small parts of him weren’t chilled already.

The Jacobite Cause was dead, and so was the part of his life connected with it.

Have sense, though. What would such a man want with him? He was a paroled prisoner of war, held in menial servitude, not even allowed to use his own notorious name. He was no better than a black slave, save that he couldn’t be sold and no one beat him. He occasionally wished that someone would try, to give him the excuse of violence, but he recognized the desire as idle fantasy and pushed the thought aside.

Beyond that … how did anyone, Jacobite, Irishman, or Hottentot, know where he was? He’d had a letter from his sister in the Highlands only a week before, and she’d certainly have mentioned anyone inquiring after him, let alone an Irishman.

The air of the stable was changing, gray light seeping in through the chinks of the walls. The dark was growing thin and with it the nightly illusion of space and freedom, as the grimy boards of his prison faded into view.

At the end of the row, he put down his pitchfork and, with a hasty glance over his shoulder to be sure neither Hanks nor Crusoe had come down yet, he ducked into the empty loose box.

He let out his breath slow, as he would when hunting, and drew it in again slower, nostrils flaring to catch a scent. Nothing but the dry smell of last August’s hay in the stall; behind him, the tang of fresh manure and the sweetness of mash and horses’ breath. The hay was tumbled, trampled in spots. He could see where he had lain last night—and a slow flush rose in his cheeks—and another spot, perhaps, where someone might have stood, in the far corner.

Little wonder the man hadn’t spoken to him, in the circumstances. He coughed. If he’d been there, and Jamie rather hoped he hadn’t.

Irishman. An Irish gentleman. The only connection he could think of … His fists curled tight as the thought came to him, and he felt the echo of impact in the bones of his knuckles. Lord John Grey. He’d found an Irishman—or the hint of one—for John Grey, but surely this could have nothing to do with Grey’s matter.

He hadn’t seen Grey in over a year and, with luck, might never see him again. Grey had been governor of Ardsmuir prison during Jamie’s imprisonment there and had arranged his parole at Helwater, the Dunsany family being longtime friends. Grey had been in the habit of visiting quarterly to inspect his prisoner, and their relations had gradually become civil, if no more.

Then Grey had offered him a bargain: if Jamie would write letters making inquiries among those Jacobites he knew living abroad regarding a matter of interest to Grey, Lord John would instruct Lord Dunsany to allow Jamie also to write openly to his family in the Highlands and to receive letters from them. Jamie had accepted this bargain, had made the desired inquiries, and had received certain information, carefully worded, that indicated that the man Lord John sought might be an Irish Jacobite—one of those followers of the Stuarts who had called themselves Wild Geese.

He didn’t know what use—if any—Grey had made of the information. Things had been said at their last meeting that—He choked the memory of it off and picked up his fork, driving it into the pile of hay with some force. Whoever Betty’s Irishman might be, he could have nothing to do with John Grey.

WITH THE USUAL VAGARIES of spring, the day had not so much dawned as it had merely stopped being night. Fog lay on the fells above Helwater in huge dirty banks, and the cold sky was the color of lead. Jamie’s right hand ached. It had been broken once in a dozen places, and every one of them now informed him in a piercing whinge that it was going to rain.

Not that he needed telling; the steel-gray light aside, he could feel the heavy damp in his lungs and his sweat chilled on him, never drying. He worked like an automaton, his mind in two places, and neither of those where his body was.

Part of his thoughts dwelled on Betty. He needed to talk with that wee besom, preferably in a place where she couldn’t get away from him easily.

The lady’s maids usually took their meals with the housekeeper in her sitting room, rather than joining the lower servants in the kitchen. He couldn’t go beyond the kitchen into the house—not openly. He paused for an instant, hayfork in hand, to wonder just what would happen if he entered surreptitiously and was caught? What could Lord Dunsany do to him? He couldn’t be dismissed, after all.

That ludicrous thought made him laugh, and he went back to his work and his thinking in a better humor.

Well, there was church. The Dunsanys were Anglican and usually attended St. Margaret’s, the village church in Ellesmere. They traveled by coach, and Betty normally went with Lady Dunsany and Lady Isobel, her mistress. He was under parole as a prisoner of war; he couldn’t set foot off the estate at Helwater without leave from Lord Dunsany—but the big coach required a team of four, which meant two drivers, and Jamie was the only groom who could drive more than a gig.

Aye, that might work; he’d see. If he could get within reach of Betty, he could perhaps slip her a note that would bring her out to talk to him. God knew what he’d say, but he’d think of something.

He could of course entrust such a note to one of the kitchen maids when he had his breakfast, but the fewer people who had to do with this business, the better. He’d try it alone first.

That much tentatively decided, he stopped to wipe his face with the grubby towel that hung on a hook over the bran tub and turned his mind again toward Betty’s Irish gentleman.

Did he exist at all? If he did, what the devil did he want with Alex MacKenzie? Unless, of course, it wasn’t Alex MacKenzie but instead Jamie Fraser whom he—

This embryonic train of thought was severed by a skittering thud and the appearance of Hanks at the foot of the ladder, yellow-jowled and smelling rancid.

“Here, Mac,” he said, trying to sound jovial. “Do me a favor?”

“Aye. What?”

Hanks managed a ghastly half smile.

“Doncher want to know what it is?”

“No.” What he wanted was for Hanks to leave, and now. The man stank as though he were dead inside, and the horses near him were whuffling and snorting in disgust.

“Oh.” Hanks rubbed a trembling hand over his face. “ ’S not much. Just … can you take my string out? I’m not …” The hand fell limp in sweeping illustration of all the things that Hanks was not.

A gust of wind came in cold beneath the stable door, smelling of the coming rain, whirling chaff and straw along the bricks between the boxes. He hesitated. It would be pouring within the hour. He could feel the storm brooding up there on the fells, dark with its gathering.

Rain wouldn’t trouble the horses; they loved it. And the fog would go when the rain fell; no great danger of getting lost.

“Meet him on the fells,” Betty had said. “Where the old shepherd’s hut is.”

“Aye, fine.” He turned his back and began to measure out the bran and flaxseed for the mash. After a moment, he heard Hanks stumble toward the ladder and he half-turned, watching in idle curiosity to see whether the man might fall and break his neck. He didn’t, though.

April 3

In the event, it had rained too hard to get high up on the fells. Jamie had taken his string of horses pounding through the mud of the lakeshore road, then walked them through the shallows of Glassmere to get the worst of it off, then back to be rubbed down and dried. He’d glanced up toward the fells once, but the rain hid the heights where the ruins of the old shepherd’s hut lay.

It was cold on the fells today but bright, and he had no string to fash with. Augustus’s coat steamed from the effort of the climb, and Jamie reined up at the crest of the rocky path to reconnoiter and to let the horse breathe. This high up, the landscape was still patched with winter, rags of frozen snow in the lee of the rocks and dripping icicles still hanging under ledges, but he felt the sun’s warmth on his shoulders and there was a faint haze of green over White Moss, just visible in the distance below.

He’d come up this way, approaching the ruined shepherd’s cottage from behind and above, to give himself an opportunity to look things over. There was no reason to suspect ambush or trap, but instinct had kept him alive so far and he seldom ignored its grim mutterings in his ear.

He’d not been up here in months, but very little changed on the fells, save the weather. There was a small tarn below, rimmed with a crescent of thin ice, last year’s dry reeds poking black through it, not yet supplanted by new growth. The shepherd’s hut was just beyond the tarn. So ruined was it that from the water’s level you’d never see it, taking it for no more than another heap of lichened stones. From above, though, the square foundation was clearly visible—and, in one corner, something flapped in the wind. Canvas, maybe? There was a bundle of some kind there, he was almost sure.

Nothing moved below save the flapping canvas and the wind in the last of winter’s grass. He slid off Augustus and hobbled him, leaving the gelding to nose among the rocks for what might be found there. He walked a short way along the ridge for a better view and, emerging from behind a jutting outcrop, saw the man sitting on a rock, thirty feet below him, also watching the ruined hut.

He was thin; Jamie could see the bones of his shoulders stark under his coat. He wore a slouched hat, but as Jamie watched him, he removed this to scratch his scalp, revealing a head of brown curls streaked with gray. He seemed familiar, and Jamie was racking his memory in search of the man’s name when his foot dislodged a small rock. It made a tiny sound, but enough. The man turned and stood up, thin face lighting. He’d lost an eyetooth, Jamie saw, but it didn’t impair the charm of his smile.

“Well, and is it not Himself? Well met, Jamie dear, well met!”

“Quinn?” he said, disbelieving. “Is it you?”

The Irishman glanced quizzically down at his body, patted his chest, and looked up again.

“Well, what’s left of me. There’s none of us is all we once were, after all—though I must say ye’re lookin’ well in yourself.” He looked Jamie up and down with approval. “The air up here must agree with ye. And ye’ve filled out a bit since last I saw ye.”

“I daresay,” Jamie replied, rather dryly. When last he’d seen Tobias Quinn, in 1746, he had been twenty-five and starving along with the rest of the Jacobite army. Quinn was a year younger than himself, and Jamie saw the lines in the Irishman’s face and the gray in his hair with a sense of dismay. If Quinn felt any similar emotion at sight of Jamie, he kept it to himself.