The Scottish Prisoner (Page 9)

The Scottish Prisoner (Lord John Grey #3)(9)
Author: Diana Gabaldon

He ducked hastily out of sight before either of them should look up and made his way back to the square, nonplussed. Carefully casual inquiry among the loungers near the horse trough elicited the information that the house on Houghton Street with the black iron fence belonged to Mr. Wilberforce, a lawyer—and from the description of Mr. Wilberforce, it was indeed this gentleman who had been making love to Lady Isobel in his gazebo.

That explained Isobel’s manner, he thought: excited, but wary lest he discover her secret. She’d had a parcel under her arm, a taped packet of documents; no doubt she’d brought them to the lawyer, her father being ill. Lord Dunsany had had a bad winter, having taken a chill that turned to pleurisy, and Isobel had come often to the town during his sickness, presumably on the family’s business. Whereupon …

Aye, well. Perhaps I’m none so worrit by what Betty might say to her ladyship.

Whistling tunelessly through his teeth, he began leisurely to hitch up the pony.

THERE WAS A NOTABLE LACK of green branches for the next few days, nay a squeak out of Betty, and he began to relax. Then on Thursday, a warm bright day, Lord Dunsany came down to the paddock where Jamie was shoveling manure, accompanied by old Nanny Elspeth with William in her arms.

Lord Dunsany beckoned to the deeply suspicious nursemaid and waved to Jamie to approach. He did, his chest feeling tight, as though the air had suddenly grown too thick to breathe.

“My lord,” he said. He didn’t bob his head, let alone knuckle his forehead or make any other physical sign of subservience, and he saw the nurse’s mouth purse in disapproval. He gave her a straight, hard look and was pleased to see her rear back and glance away, sallow cheeks flushing.

He was prey to the most extraordinary array of emotions. For the most part, he succeeded in keeping his thoughts of William strictly confined, though he thought of him every day. He seldom saw the child, and when he did, it was only as a glimpse of a woolly bundle in the arms of Nanny Elspeth or Peggy, the nursemaid, taking the air on one of the balconies. He had accustomed himself to thinking of William as a sort of small, glowing light in his mind, something like the flame of a wax candle lit before a saint’s statue in a dark chapel. He couldn’t afford such a candle, and wouldn’t be allowed into the Helwater chapel, but liked to imagine himself lighting one when he said his prayers at night. He would watch the flame catch and swell, wavering a bit and then growing tall and still. He would go to sleep then and feel it burn, a peaceful watch fire in his heart.

“MacKenzie!” Dunsany said, beaming at him and waving at the child. “I thought it time my grandson became acquainted with the horses. Will you fetch out Bella?”

“Of course, my lord.”

Bella was a fine old mare, long past breeding but kept by Dunsany for the sake of their long association; she was the first broodmare he had acquired when he established the Helwater stables. She had a kind eye and a good heart, and Jamie could not have chosen better for the purpose.

He had a burning in his chest now, but this was drowned by a wash of panic, guilt, and a ferocious cramp that knotted his belly as though he’d eaten bad meat.

The old nurse eyed him suspiciously, looking slowly up from his sandaled feet to his stubbled face. Plainly she was reluctant to surrender her charge to anything that looked like that. He smiled broadly at her, and she flinched, as though menaced by a savage. Aye, fine, he thought. He felt savage.

He plucked the little boy neatly out of her arms, though, scarcely ruffling his gown. The boy gave a small yelp of startlement and turned his head round like an owl in amazement at being suddenly up so high.

Relief washed through him, as the wide eyes stared into his face. His guilty conscience had convinced him that William was an exact small replica of himself, whose resemblance would be noted at once by anyone who saw them together. But William’s round face and snub nose bore not the slightest likeness to his own features. While the child’s eyes could be called blue, they were pale, an indeterminate shade between gray and blue, the color of a clouded sky.

That was all he had time to take in, as he turned without hesitation to settle the little boy on the horse’s back. As he guided the chubby hands to grasp the saddle’s edge, though, talking in a conversational tone that soothed horse and child together, he saw that William’s hair was—thank God!—not at all red. A soft middling brown, cut in a pudding-bowl style like one of Cromwell’s Roundhead soldiers. True, there was a reddish cast to it in the sunlight, but, after all, Geneva’s hair had been a rich chestnut.

He looks like his mother, he thought, and sent a heartfelt prayer of thanksgiving toward the Blessed Virgin.

“Now, then, Willie,” said Lord Dunsany, patting the boy’s back. “Just you hold on tight. MacKenzie will take you round the paddock.”

Willie looked very dubious at this proposal, and his chin drew back into the neck of his smock. “Mo!” he said, and, letting go the saddle, swung his fat little leg awkwardly to the rear, plainly intending to get off, though the ground was some feet below him.

Jamie grabbed him before he could fall.

“Mo!” Willie repeated, struggling to get down. “Momomomomo!”

“He means ‘no,’ ” the nurse murmured, not displeased, and reached for the boy. “I said he was too young. Here, poppet, you come to Nanny Elspeth. We’ll go back to the nursery and have our nice tea.”

“Mo!” Willie said shrilly, and capriciously flung himself round, burrowing into Jamie’s chest.

“Now, now,” his grandfather soothed, reaching for him. “Come to me, lad, we’ll go and—”

“MOMOMOMOMO …”

Jamie put a hand over the child’s mouth, stilling the racket momentarily.

“We’ll go and speak to the horses, aye?” he said firmly, and hoisted the child up onto his shoulders before Willie could make up his mind to shriek some more. Diverted by this splendid new perch, Willie crowed and grabbed Jamie’s hair. Not waiting to hear any objections, Jamie took hold of the chubby knees wrapped round his ears and headed for the stable.

“Now, this sweet auld lad is Deacon,” he said, squatting down to bring Willie to eye level with the old gelding, who lifted his nose, nostrils flaring with interest. “We call him Deke. Can ye say that? Deke?”

Willie squealed and pulled on Jamie’s hair but didn’t jerk away, and after a moment, urged on by his grandfather, put out a hand and ventured a hasty pat. “Deke,” he said, and laughed, charmed. “Deke!”

Jamie was careful to visit only those horses of age and temperament to deal well with a two-year-old child, but he was pleased—as was Lord Dunsany—to see that William wasn’t afraid of the enormous animals. Jamie kept as careful an eye on the old man as he did on the child; his lordship’s color was bad, his hands skeletal, and Jamie could hear the air whistle in his lungs when he breathed. In spite of everything, he rather liked Dunsany and hoped the baronet wasn’t about to die in the stable aisle.

“Oh, there’s my lovely Phil,” said Dunsany, breaking into a smile as they came up to one of the loose boxes. At his voice, Philemon, a beautiful eight-year-old dark bay, lifted his head and gazed at them for a moment with a soft-lashed, open look before putting his head down again, nibbling up some spilled oats from the floor.

Dunsany fumbled with the latch, and Jamie hastily reached to open the door. The horse didn’t object to their coming into the box, merely shifting his huge rump a bit to one side, tail swishing.

“Now, ye must never go behind a horse,” Jamie told William. “If ye startle them, they might kick, aye?” The little boy’s soft chestnut hair whorled up in a cowlick at his crown. He nodded solemnly but then struggled to get down.

Jamie glanced at Dunsany, who nodded, then he set William carefully on the floor, ready to snatch him up again if he shrieked or made a rumpus. But William stood stock still, mouth a little open, watching in fascination as the huge head came close to him, soft lips nibbling at the grain, and with the oddest sense of dislocation, Jamie suddenly felt himself on the floor of a stable, hearing the deep slobbering crunch of a horse’s chewing just beside him, seeing the huge, glassy hooves, smelling hay and oats and the wonderful pungent scent of the horse’s warm hide. There had been the feeling of someone behind him, he’d been aware of the man’s big legs in their woolen hose and he heard his father laugh and say something above him, but all he’d had eyes for was the horse, that massive, beautiful, gentle creature, so amazing that he’d wanted to embrace it.

William did embrace it. Entranced, he toddled forward and hugged Philemon’s head in an access of pure love. The horse’s long-lashed eyes widened in surprise and he blew out air through his nose, ruffling the child’s clothes, but did no more than bob his head a bit, lifting Willie a few inches into the air, then setting him gently down as he resumed his eating.

William laughed, a giggle of pure delight, and Jamie and Lord Dunsany looked at each other and smiled, then glanced aside, each embarrassed.

Later, Jamie watched them go, William insisting upon walking, his grandfather limping behind the sturdy little form like an aged black crane, leaning heavily on his walking stick, the two of them washed in the pale gold of the soft spring sun.

Does Dunsany know? he wondered. He was nearly sure that Lady Isobel did. Betty, quite possibly. If Lady Dunsany knew, though, she kept her own counsel, and he doubted that she would tell her husband, not wishing to shock or grieve him.

Still, the auld gentleman’s no a fool. And Dunsany had been in that drawing room at Ellesmere, the day after his grandson’s birth and his daughter’s death, when Geneva’s husband, the old Earl of Ellesmere, had raged that the child was a bastard—and Geneva Dunsany a whore—and had threatened to drop tiny William from a window onto the paving stones thirty feet below.

Jamie had seized a loaded pistol from Jeffries—the coachman, summoned with Jamie to help calm the earl—and had shot Ellesmere. Aye, well. It did calm the auld fiend, and may he burn in hell.

Nothing had been said to Jamie. Nothing. In the aftermath of the explosion, when Jamie had stood shaking on the hearth rug, the rescued infant in his arms—his shot had gone through the baby’s draperies, missing William by an inch—Lord Dunsany had bent calmly over Ellesmere’s body, pressing his fingers to the slack, fleshy throat. Then, satisfied, had come and taken the boy from Jamie’s arms and told Jeffries to take Jamie to the kitchen and get him some brandy.

In the staggeringly practical way of the English, Lord Dunsany had then sent word to the local coroner that Lord Ellesmere had suffered a sad accident, to which Jeffries testified. Jamie had neither been named nor called. A few days later, the old earl and his very young wife, Geneva, had been buried together, and a week after that, Jeffries took his leave, pensioned off to County Sligo.

All the servants knew what had happened, of course. If anything, it made them even more afraid of Jamie, but they said nothing to him—or to anyone else—about the matter. It was the business of the family, and no one else. There would be no scandal.