Hanks and Crusoe didn’t look at him when they all made their way up to the house for breakfast. He’d been screaming in his sleep, then. A dull red flush burned up from his belly, radiating from a core of hot lead somewhere deep inside. He felt as though he’d swallowed a two-pound shot, fresh from the cannon’s mouth.
He’d dreamed, he knew that much. Had wakened before dawn, shaking and drenched with sweat. It had been a dream of Culloden, because all he recalled was the sickening feel of a sword driven into flesh, the momentary toughness just before the skin split, the yielding drive into muscle and the grate and jar of bone. The feeling still quivered in his left arm; he kept flexing his hand and wiping it against his thigh.
He ate nothing but managed a mug of scalding tea the color of dirt. That soothed him, and so did the walk out to the farthest paddock, bridle in hand. The air was still chilly, but the lingering snow on the fells was melting; he could hear the voice of running water, coming down through the rocks. The bogs in the low ground—“mosses,” the locals called them: White Moss, Threapland Moss, Leighton Moss—would all be greening now, the ground growing softer and more treacherous by the day.
There was a long slender switch of fresh elder floating in the horse trough in the far paddock, though there were no trees of any kind within a quarter mile and no elders nearer than the manor house. Jamie muttered, “Christ,” under his breath, and plucked the stem out, dripping. The dark resinous buds had begun to split, and crumpled leaves of a vivid light green keeked out.
“He says to tell you the green branch will flower.” He flung the branch over the fence. It wasn’t the first. He’d found one laid across his path three days ago, when he’d brought his string in from exercise, and another yesterday, wedged into a cleft in the fence of the riding arena.
He put his hands to his mouth and shouted, “NO!” in a voice that rang off the tumbled stones at the foot of the nearest fell. He didn’t expect to be heard, let alone obeyed, but it relieved his feelings. Shaking his head, he caught the horse he’d come for and made his way back to the stable.
Life had gone back to its accustomed rhythm since his meeting with Quinn, but the Irishman’s pernicious influence lingered, in the form of bad dreams, as well as the mocking greenery.
And then there was Betty. Coming up to the house for his tea—much needed, he having had neither breakfast nor elevenses—he saw the lass loitering about the gate to the kitchen garden. A lady’s maid had no business to be there, but the flower beds were nearby, and she had a bouquet of daffodils in one hand. She raised these to her nose and gave him a provocative look over them. He meant to go by without acknowledgment, but she stepped into his path, playfully brushing the flowers across his chest.
“They havena got any smell, have they?” he said, fending them off.
“No, but they’re so pretty, aren’t they?”
“If ye canna eat them, I’m no particularly inclined to admire them. Now, if ye—” He stopped abruptly, for she had pressed into his hand a sprig of willow, with its long, fuzzy yellow catkins. A note was wrapped about the stem, secured with string.
He handed it back to her without hesitation and walked up the path.
He knew it was a mistake to turn around, but ingrained courtesy had turned him before he could resist. “Mistress Betty?”
“I’ll tell.” Her black eyes glittered, and her chin thrust out pugnaciously.
“Aye, do,” he said. “And I hope ye’ve a fine day for it.” He turned his back on her but, on second thought, turned again.
“Tell who what?” he demanded.
She blinked at that. But then a sly look came into her eyes.
“What do you think?” she said, and turned away in a flounce of skirts.
He shook his head, trying to shake his wits into some semblance of order. Was the bloody woman talking about what he’d thought she was talking about?
He’d assumed that she meant she’d tell Lord Dunsany that he’d been secretly meeting an Irish Jacobite on the fells. But looked at logically … would she?
Quinn was, after all, her brother-in-law. And presumably she liked the man well enough, or why carry his messages? Would she risk having him arrested?
Was the note she had tried to give him from Quinn, in fact? He’d thought so, seeing the willow branchlet, but perhaps it was her own silly attempt at further seduction, in which case he’d just mortally offended her. He breathed heavily through his nose.
Putting that aside … it might cause Jamie a bit of bother if she mentioned his meeting Quinn, but if you came right down to it, the one advantage of his present position was that there really wasn’t much anyone could do to make it worse. He was not Dunsany’s prisoner; the baronet couldn’t lock him up, put him in irons, feed him on bread and water, or flog him. The most Dunsany could do was to inform Lord John Grey.
He snorted at the thought. He doubted that wee pervert could face him, after what had been said during their last meeting, let alone take issue with him over Quinn. Still, he felt a cramping in his middle at the thought of seeing Grey again and didn’t want to think too much about why.
At least there was cake for the servants’ tea. He could smell its aroma, warm and yeasty, and his step quickened.
IF HE DREAMED that night, he had the mercy of not remembering it. He kept a wary eye out, but no green branches lay across his path or fell from his clothes as he dressed. Perhaps Betty had told Quinn about his ungracious response to the proffered note and the man had given up.
“Aye, that’ll be the day,” he muttered. He knew a number of Irishmen, and most of them persistent as saddle burrs. He also knew Quinn.
Still, the day looked like an improvement over the last—at least until word came down from the house that Lady Isobel required a groom to drive her into the town. Hanks had fallen down the ladder this morning and broken his arm—or at least he said it was broken and retired, groaning, to the loft to await the attentions of the local horse leech—and Crusoe avoided the town, he having gotten into an altercation with a blacksmith’s apprentice on his last visit that had left him with a flattened nose and two black eyes.
“You go, MacKenzie,” Crusoe said, pretending to be busy with a piece of harness in need of mending. “I’ll take your string.”
“Aye, thanks.” He felt pleased at the thought of getting off Helwater for a bit. Large as the estate was, the feeling that he could not leave if he wanted to chafed him. And it had been some months since he’d been to town; he looked forward to the journey, even if it involved Lady Isobel.
Isobel Dunsany was not the horsewoman her sister, Geneva, had been. She was not precisely timid with horses, but she didn’t like them, and the horses knew it. She didn’t like Jamie, either, and he knew that fine well; she didn’t hide it.
Nay wonder about that, he thought, handing her up into the pony trap. If Geneva told her, she likely thinks I killed her sister. He rather thought Geneva had told Isobel about his visit to Geneva’s room; the sisters had been close. Almost certainly she hadn’t told Isobel that she’d brought him to her bed by means of blackmail, though.
Isobel didn’t look at him and jerked her elbow free of his grip the instant her foot touched the boards. That was nothing unusual—but today she turned her head suddenly, fixing him with an odd, piercing look before turning away, biting her lip.
He got up beside her and twitched the reins over the pony’s back, but was aware of her eyes burning a hole in his right shoulder.
What burr’s got under her saddle? he wondered. Had bloody Betty said something to her? Accused him, maybe, of interfering with her? Was that what the little besom had meant by “I’ll tell”?
The lines came to him suddenly, from a play by Congreve: Heav’n has no Rage, like Love to Hatred turn’d, / Nor Hell a Fury, like a Woman scorn’d. Damm it, he thought irritably. Was it not possible to refuse a woman’s bed without her feeling scorned? Well … possibly not. He had a sudden distant memory of Laoghaire MacKenzie and an ill wish, a bundle of herbs tied with colored thread. He shoved it aside.
He’d read the Congreve play in Ardsmuir prison, over the course of several weekly dinners with Lord John Grey. Could still hear Grey declaim those lines, very dramatic.
As you’ll answer it, take heed
This Slave commit no Violence upon
Himself. I’ve been deceiv’d. The Publick Safety
Requires he should be more confin’d; and none,
No not the Princes self, permitted to
Confer with him. I’ll quit you to the King.
Vile and ingrate! too late thou shalt repent
The base Injustice thou hast done my Love:
Yes, thou shalt know, spite of thy past Distress,
And all those Ills which thou so long hast mourn’d;
Heav’n has no Rage, like Love to Hatred turn’d,
Nor Hell a Fury, like a Woman scorn’d.
“What?” said Lady Isobel, rather rudely.
“I beg your pardon, my lady?”
“I beg your pardon, my lady.”
Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast,
To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.
I’ve read, that things inanimate have mov’d,
And, as with living Souls, have been inform’d,
By Magick Numbers and persuasive Sound.
What then am I? Am I more senseless grown
Than Trees, or Flint? O force of constant Woe!
’Tis not in Harmony to calm my Griefs.
Anselmo sleeps, and is at Peace; last Night
The silent Tomb receiv’d the good Old King;
He and his Sorrows now are safely lodg’d
Within its cold, but hospitable Bosom.
Why am not I at Peace?
He wondered whether music really did help. He could not himself distinguish one tune from another. Still, he was pleased to know that he could recall so much of the play and passed the rest of the journey pleasantly in reciting lines to himself, being careful not to snort.
AT LADY ISOBEL’S DIRECTION, he deposited her at an imposing stone house, with instructions to come back in three hours. He nodded—she glowered at him; she thought him insolent, because he never tugged his forelock in the manner she thought proper deference (Be damned to her for a high-heided wee baggage, he thought, smiling pleasantly)—and drove to the square, where he could unhitch and water the pony.
People looked at him, startled by his size and coloring, but then went about their own business and left him to his. He hadn’t any money but enjoyed himself in strolling through the narrow streets, luxuriating in the feeling that—for however short a time—no one in the world knew exactly where he was. The day was bright, though cold, and the gardens had begun to bloom with snowdrops, tulips, and daffodils, blowing in the wind. The daffodils reminded him of Betty, but he was too much at peace with himself just now to be bothered.
It was a small town, and he’d passed the house where he’d left Isobel several times. On the fourth passage, though, he glimpsed the wind-tossed feathers of her hat through a screen of thinly leaved bushes in the back garden. Surprised, he walked to the end of the street and went round the corner. From here, he had a clear view of the back garden, neat behind a black iron fence—and a very clear view of Lady Isobel, locked in passionate embrace with a gentleman.