The Scottish Prisoner (Page 40)

The Scottish Prisoner (Lord John Grey #3)(40)
Author: Diana Gabaldon

“I would, yes.” Grey gave him back the smile. “Thank you, Mr. Fraser.”

“Ye’re most welcome,” Fraser said politely.

Tom arrived at this point with a bowl of water, a cloth, and an anxious-looking young woman.

“Oh, sir,” she cried, seeing Fraser. “Mr. Tom said ye’d been thrown off your horse, the wicked creature, and into a ditch on your head! Are ye damaged at all?”

Fraser looked utterly outraged at the notion that he might have been thrown by an aged mare—plainly this excuse for his appearance would never have occurred to him—but he luckily refrained from speaking his mind and submitted with grimaces to having his face swabbed clean. With ill grace and to the accompaniment of much sympathetic—and some derisive—comment from the taproom, he allowed Grey and Tom to assist him up the stairs, it having become obvious that he could not raise his left knee more than an inch or two. They lowered him upon the bed, whereat he gave an agonized cry and rolled onto one side.

“What’s the matter?” Tom asked anxiously. “Have you injured your spine, Captain? Ye could be paralyzed, if it’s your spine. Can ye wiggle your toes?”

“It’s no my spine,” Fraser said through his teeth. “It’s my arse.”

It would have seemed odd to leave the room, so Grey remained, but in deference to what he assumed to be Fraser’s sensibilities, he stood back and allowed Tom to help Fraser remove his breeches, averting his own gaze without being obvious about it.

A shocked exclamation from Tom made him look, though, and he echoed it with his own.

“Jesus Christ! What the devil did he do to you?” Fraser halflay on the bed, shirt rucked up to display the damage. Nearly the whole of Fraser’s left buttock was an ugly purplish-blue, surrounding a swollen contusion that was almost black.

“I told ye,” Fraser said grouchily, “he tried to cave my heid in. With a sort of club wi’ a knob on one end.”

“He’s got the devil of a bad aim.”

Fraser didn’t actually laugh, but his scowl relaxed a little.

“What you want,” Tom informed him, “is a poultice for bruising. Me mam would make one out of brick dust and egg and a bit of pounded milk thistle, when me and me brothers would get a black eye or summat of the kind.”

“I believe there is a distinct shortage of brick dust in the neighborhood,” Grey said. “But you might see what your inamorata recommends in the nature of a poultice, Tom.”

“Likely a handful of manure,” Fraser muttered.

In the event, Tom returned with the landlord’s wife, bearing a moist cloth full of sliced, charred onions, which she applied, with many expressions of sympathetic horror (punctuated by loud expressions of astonishment as to how such a kind, sweet horse as our Bedelia, and her so gentle a soul as could have given our Lord a ride into Jerusalem, might ever have come to give the gentleman such a cruel toss, which made Fraser grind his teeth audibly), to the sufferer’s shoulder, leaving the more delicate application to Tom.

Owing to the nature of his injuries, Fraser could not lie comfortably on his back, or on either side, and was obliged to lie on his stomach, the bad shoulder cradled by a pillow and the air of the chamber perfumed with the eye-watering fragrance of hot onions.

Grey lounged against the wall by the window, now and then looking out, just in case Siverly might have organized some sort of pursuit, but the darkening road remained empty.

From the corner of his eye, he could see the woman completing her ministrations. She went and came again with a second poultice, then climbed the stairs once more, puffing slightly, with a dram of whiskey, which she held carefully with one hand, lifting Fraser’s head with the other to help him drink, though he resisted this assistance.

The movement had disarranged the first poultice, and she pulled back the neck of Fraser’s shirt to replace it. The firelight glinted across the white scars, clearly visible across his shoulder blade, and she gave a single, shocked click of the tongue when she saw them. She gave Grey a hard, straight look, then, with great gentleness but a tight mouth, she straightened the shirt, unplaited Jamie’s hair and combed it, then braided it loosely and bound it with a bit of string.

Grey was conscious of a sudden lurch within, watching sparks of copper glint from the thick dark-red strands that slid through the woman’s fingers. A sharp spurt of what began as simple jealousy ended as a sense of baffled longing as he saw Fraser, eyes closed, relax and turn his cheek into the pillow, his body yielding, unthinking, compliant to the woman’s touch.

When she had done, she went out, glancing sidelong at Tom. He looked at Grey and, receiving a nod of assent, went downstairs after her.

Grey himself poked up the fire and then sat down on a stool beside the bed.

“Do you need to sleep?” he inquired, rather gruffly.

The slanted blue eyes opened at once.

“No.” Fraser raised himself gingerly, weight resting on his left forearm. “Jesus, that hurts!”

Grey reached into his portmanteau and withdrew his flask, which he handed over.

“Brandy,” he said.

“Thank you,” Fraser said fervently, and uncorked it. Grey sat down again, with a small glow of gratification.

“Tell me, if you will, exactly what happened.”

Fraser obliged, pausing periodically to swallow brandy, wipe his eyes, or blow his nose, as the onion fumes made these run profusely.

“So, plainly he recognized the poem,” Grey said. “Which is reasonable; it confirms our original assumption that it had something to do with Siverly, as Carruthers had made a point of including it. What is more interesting is his question to you: ‘Who are you?’ That implies that the answer was something other than your name, does it not? Particularly if, as you say, he recognized you.”

Fraser nodded. “Aye, it does. It also implies that there are people he doesna ken personally, but who might be expected to recognize that poem—and to seek out others o’ the same ilk, using the poem as a signal. In other words—”

“A conspiracy,” Grey said, with a feeling between dread and excitement settling in his stomach.

Fraser gave a small grunt of assent and, handing back the half-empty flask, eased himself down, grimacing.

“What sort of conspiracy do you think it is, Mr. Fraser?” Grey asked, watching him closely. The Scot’s mouth tightened for a moment, but he’d plainly already done his thinking on the matter, for he answered without hesitation.

“Politics. There’s a wee reference in the poem to a white rose. That canna mean anything but Jacobites.” He spoke in a tone of absolute conviction.

“Ah.” Grey paused, then, striving for casualness, said, “I don’t believe you mentioned the white rose in your original translation.”

Fraser blew his nose with a vicious honk. “No,” he said calmly, sniffing, “nor after I showed it to Captain Lally. Neither did he.”

“And yet you tell me now,” Grey observed.

Fraser gave him a sideways look, put out a hand for the flask, and drank more brandy, as though considering his answer, though Grey was reasonably sure he’d considered it extensively already.

“Now it’s real,” he said finally, putting down the flask. He shifted a little, grimacing. “Ye wouldna ken, but in the time before the Rising in Scotland, and to nay little extent after, there were dozens—nay, hundreds—of tiny conspiracies. Plots, suggestions o’ plots, hints of plots—any man who could hold a pen writing coded letters, talking of money, praising his own connections, and blackening the names of others—and nearly all of it nothing but wind.”

He wiped his eyes, sneezed, and wiped his nose.

“Jesus, I may never eat onions again.”

“Does it help? With the pain, I mean.”

Fraser looked surprised, as though it had never occurred to him to wonder.

“Aye, it does; it warms the sore parts.” His mouth twitched. “That, or maybe it’s the brandy.” He cleared his throat. “Anyway. I saw hundreds of things like that, in Paris. For a time, it was my business to look for such things. That’s where I made the acquaintance of your sister-in-law.”

Jamie spoke casually, but Grey saw the Scot’s sidelong look and manfully concealed his own surprise.

“Yes, Hal said her father was a … dealer in documents.”

“That’s a verra tactful way to put it.” He sniffed and looked up, one eyebrow raised. “I’m surprised that she didna tell ye about the white rose herself,” he said. “She must ha’ seen it.” And then his gaze sharpened. “Oh,” he said, with a half smile. “Of course, she did. I should have kent that.”

“You should,” Grey agreed dryly. “But you said, ‘Now it’s real.’ Why? Only because Siverly is involved in some way?”

Jamie nodded and shifted himself, looking for a more comfortable way to lie. He settled for resting his forehead on his crossed forearms.

“Because Siverly’s rich,” he said, his voice a little muffled. “Whether he stole his money or made it, we ken he’s got it, do we not?”

“We do,” Grey said, a little grimly. “Or at least he had it at one point. For all I know, he’s spent it on all on whores and horses. Or that monstrous great house.”

Fraser made a motion of the head that might have been agreement.

“Either way, he has something to lose,” he said. “And there’s the minor consideration that he tried, verra seriously, to kill me.” He raised his head from the pillow, squinting at Grey. “He’ll try again, aye?” he observed, though without much concern. “Ye havena got much more than tomorrow morning before he turns up here.”

“I mean to call upon Major Siverly in the morning,” Grey assured him. “But you have not completely answered my question, Mr. Fraser. You said, ‘Now it’s real,’ and I understand that. But should not the possibility of a substantial conspiracy, well funded and decently managed, increase your loyalty to the Stuart cause?”

Fraser laid his head on his arms, but turned his face toward Grey and studied him for some time, eyes narrowed.

“I shall never fight in that cause again,” he said at last, softly, and Grey thought he spoke with a sense of true regret. “Not from cowardice, but from the sure knowledge of its futility. Major Siverly’s nay friend to me. And should there be men I know involved in this … I will do them nay service to let it go further.”

He turned his face away again and lay quiet.

Grey picked up the flask and shook it. There was very little left in it, but he drank this, slowly, watching the play of fire through the tangled strands of the peat bricks in the hearth.

Was Fraser telling the truth? He thought so. If so—was his assessment of that one phrase in the poem sufficient as to conjure up a complete Jacobite conspiracy? But that wasn’t the only evidence, he reminded himself. Minnie had said the same—and, above all, Siverly’s attempt on Fraser’s life argued that the poem itself was dangerous in some way. How else if not, as Fraser said, a signal of recognition? But a signal to whom?