“Well, not if he’s anything like you described him, no,” he said mildly. “I just noticed when ye left this morning, and wondered.”
“Oh.” She was still ruffled, he could see that and wondered why. He was about to ask again about her day when she took the hat off and eyed him speculatively.
“You said if I wore the hat, you’d tell me what you were doing with that champagne bottle. Other than giving it to Mandy to throw through the window,” she added, with a tinge of wifely censoriousness. “What were you thinking, Roger?”
“Well, in all honesty, I was thinking about your arse,” he said. “But it never occurred to me that she’d throw the thing. Or that she could throw it like that.”
“Did you ask her why she did it?”
He stopped, nonplused.
“It hadn’t occurred to me that she’d have a reason,” he confessed. “I snatched her off the table as she was about to pitch face-first into the broken window, and I was so frightened that I just picked her up and smacked her bum.”
“I don’t think she’d do something like that for no reason,” Bree said meditatively. She’d put aside the hard hat and was scooping herself into her brassiere, a spectacle Roger found diverting under just about any circumstances.
It wasn’t until they’d gone back to the kitchen for their own late supper that he remembered to ask again how her workday had gone.
“Not bad,” she said, with a good assumption of casualness. Not so good as to convince him, but good enough that he thought better of prodding, and instead asked, “Ceremonial purposes?”
A broad grin spread across her face.
“You know. For you.”
“Yes, you and your fetish for women’s lacy underthings.”
“What—you mean you only wear knickers for—”
“For you to take off, of course.”
There was no telling where the conversation might have gone from this point, but it was interrupted by a loud wail from above, and Bree disappeared hastily in the direction of the stairs, leaving Roger to contemplate this latest revelation.
He’d got the bacon fried and the tinned beans simmering by the time she reappeared, a small frown between her brows.
“Bad dream,” she said, in answer to his lifted brow. “The same one.”
“The bad thing trying to get in her window again?”
She nodded and took the saucepan of beans he handed her, though she didn’t move immediately to serve out the food.
“I asked her why she threw the bottle.”
Brianna took the bean spoon, holding it like a weapon.
“She said she saw him outside the window.”
IN THE MORNING, the broch was just as it had been the last time he’d looked. Dark. Quiet, save for the rustling of the doves overhead. He’d taken away the rubbish; no new fish papers had come. Swept and garnished, he thought. Waiting for the occupation of whatever roaming spirit might happen by?
He shook that thought off and closed the door firmly. He’d get new hinges and a padlock for it, next time he passed by the Farm and Household Stores.
Had Mandy really seen someone? And if she had, was it the same tramp who had frightened Jem? The idea of someone hanging round, spying on his family, made something hard and black curl through his chest, like a sharp-pointed iron spring. He stood for a moment, narrowly surveying the house, the grounds, for any trace of an intruder. Anywhere a man might hide. He’d already searched the barn and the other outbuildings.
The Dunbonnet’s cave? The thought—with his memory of Jem standing right by the mouth of the cave—chilled him. Well, he’d soon find out, he thought grimly, and with a last glance at Annie MacDonald and Mandy, peacefully hanging out the family washing in the yard below, he set off.
He kept a sharp ear out today. He heard the echo of the red stags belling, still hard at it, and once saw a small herd of hinds in the distance, but luckily met no lust-crazed males. No lurking tramps, either.
It took him some time of casting about to find the cave’s entrance, even though he’d been there only the day before. He made a good bit of noise, approaching, but stood outside and called, “Hallo, the cave!” just in case. No answer.
He approached the entrance from the side, pressing back the covering gorse with a forearm, ready in case the tramp might be lurking inside—but he could tell as soon as the damp breath of the place touched his face that it was unoccupied.
Nonetheless, he poked his head in, then swung himself down into the cave itself. It was dry, for a cave in the Highlands, which was not saying all that much. Cold as a tomb, though. It was no wonder Highlanders had a reputation for toughness; anyone who wasn’t would have succumbed to starvation or pneumonia in short order.
Despite the chill of the place, he stood for a minute, imagining his father-in-law here. It was empty and cold, but oddly peaceful, he thought. No sense of foreboding. In fact, he felt… welcomed, and the notion made the hairs prickle on his arms.
“Grant, Lord, that they may be safe,” he said quietly, his hand resting on the stone at the entrance. Then he climbed out, into the sun’s warm benediction.
That strange sense of welcome, of having been somehow acknowledged, remained with him.
“Well, what now, athair-céile?” he said aloud, half joking. “Anyplace else I should look?”
Even as he said it, he realized that he was looking. On the top of the next small hill was the heap of stones Brianna had told him about. Human-made, she’d said, and thought it might be an Iron Age fort. There didn’t look to be enough of whatever it was standing to offer shelter to anyone, but out of sheer restlessness, he made his way down through the tumble of rock and heather, splashed through a tiny burn that gurgled through the rock at the foot of the hill, and toiled his way up to the heap of ancient rubble.
It was ancient—but not as old as the Iron Age. What he found looked like the ruins of a small chapel; a stone on the ground had a cross chiseled crudely into it, and he saw what looked like the weathered fragments of a stone statue, scattered by the entrance. There was more of it than he’d thought from a distance; one wall still reached as high as his waist, and there were parts of two more. The roof had long since fallen in and disappeared, but a length of the rooftree was still there, the wood gone hard as metal.
Wiping sweat from the back of his neck, he stooped and picked up the statue’s head. Very old. Celtic, Pictish? Not enough left to tell even the statue’s intended gender.
He passed a thumb gently over the statue’s sightless eyes, then set the head carefully atop the half wall; there was a depression there, as though there might once have been a niche in the wall.
“Okay,” he said, feeling awkward. “See you later, then.” And, turning, made his way down the rough hill toward home, still with that odd sense of being accompanied on his way.
The Bible says, “Seek, and ye shall find,” he thought. And said aloud to the vibrant air, “But there’s no guarantee about what you’ll find, is there?”
CONVERSATION WITH A HEADMASTER
AFTER A PEACEFUL LUNCH with Mandy, who seemed to have forgotten all about her nightmares, he dressed with some care for his interview with the headmaster of Jem’s school.
Mr. Menzies was a surprise; Roger hadn’t thought to ask Bree what the man was like, and had been expecting something squat, middle-aged, and authoritarian, along the lines of his own headmaster at school. Instead, Menzies was close to Roger’s own age, a slender, pale-skinned man with spectacles and what looked like a humorous eye behind them. Roger didn’t miss the firm set of the mouth, though, and thought he’d been right to keep Bree from coming.
“Lionel Menzies,” the headmaster said, smiling. He had a solid handshake and a friendly air, and Roger found himself revising his strategy.
“Roger MacKenzie.” He let go and took the proffered seat, across the desk from Menzies. “Jem’s—Jeremiah’s—dad.”
“Oh, aye, of course. I rather thought I might see you or your wife, when Jem didn’t turn up at school this morning.” Menzies leaned back a little, folding his hands. “Before we go very far… could I just ask exactly what Jem told ye about what happened?”
Roger’s opinion of the man rose a grudging notch.
“He said that his teacher heard him say something to another lad in the Gaelic, whereupon she grabbed him by the ear and shook him. That made him mad and he called her names—also in Gaelic—for which you belted him.” He’d spotted the strap itself, hung up inconspicuously—but still quite visible—on the wall beside a filing cabinet.
Menzies’s eyebrows rose behind his spectacles.
“Is that not what happened?” Roger asked, wondering for the first time whether Jem had lied or omitted something even more horrible from his account.
“No, that’s what happened,” Menzies said. “I’ve just never heard a parent give such a concise account. Generally speaking, it’s a half hour of prologue, dissociated trivia, contumely, and contradiction—that’s if both parents come—and personal attacks before I can make out precisely what the trouble is. Thank you.” He smiled, and quite involuntarily, Roger smiled back.
“I was sorry to have to do it,” Menzies went on, not pausing for reply. “I like Jem. He’s clever, hardworking—and really funny.”
“He is that,” Roger said. “But—”
“But I hadn’t a choice, really,” Menzies interrupted firmly. “If none of the other students had known what he was saying, we might have done with a simple apology. But—did he tell ye what it was he said?”
“Not in detail, no.” Roger hadn’t inquired; he’d heard Jamie Fraser curse someone in Gaelic only three or four times—but it was a memorable experience, and Jem had an excellent memory.
“Well, I won’t, either, then, unless you insist. But the thing is, while only a few of the kids on the play yard likely understood him, they would tell—well, they have told, in fact—all their friends exactly what he said. And they know I understood it, too. I’ve got to support the authority of my teachers; if there’s no respect for the staff, the whole place goes to hell…. Did your wife tell me ye’d taught yourself? At Oxford, I think she said? That’s very impressive.”
“That was some years ago, and I was only a junior don, but yes. And I hear what you’re saying, though I unfortunately had to keep order and respect without the threat of physical force.” Not that he wouldn’t have loved to be able to punch one or two of his Oxford second-year students in the nose…
Menzies eyed him with a slight twinkle.
“I’d say your presence was likely adequate,” he said. “And given that you’re twice my size, I’m pleased to hear that you’re not inclined to use force.”
“Some of your other parents are?” Roger asked, raising his own brows.
“Well, none of the fathers has actually struck me, no, though it’s been threatened once or twice. Did have one mother come in with the family shotgun, though.” Menzies inclined his head at the wall behind him, and looking up, Roger saw a spray of black pockmarks in the plaster, mostly—but not entirely—covered by a framed map of Africa.
“Fired over your head, at least,” Roger said dryly, and Menzies laughed.
“Well, no,” he said, deprecating. “I asked her please to set it down carefully, and she did, but not carefully enough. Caught the trigger somehow and blam! The poor woman was really unnerved—though not quite as much as I was.”
“You’re bloody good, mate,” Roger said, smiling in acknowledgment of Menzies’s skill in handling difficult parents—including Roger—but leaning forward a little to indicate that he meant to take control of the conversation. “But I’m not—not yet, anyway—complaining about your belting Jem. It’s what led to that.”
Menzies drew breath and nodded, setting his elbows on the desk and steepling his hands.
“I understand the need to support your teachers,” Roger said, and set his own hands on the desk. “But that woman nearly tore my son’s ear off, and evidently for no crime greater than saying a few words—not cursing, just words—in the Gàidhlig.”
Menzies eyes sharpened, catching the accent.
“Ah, you’ve got it, then. Wondered, ken, was it you or your wife had it.”
“You make it sound like a disease. My wife’s an American—surely ye noticed?”
Menzies gave him an amused look—no one failed to notice Brianna—but said only, “Aye, I noticed. She told me her da was Scots, though, and a Highlander. You speak it at home?”
“No, not much. Jem got it from his grandda. He’s … no longer with us,” he added.
“Ah,” he said softly. “Aye, I had it from my grandparents, as well—my mam’s folk. Dead, too, now. They were from Skye.” The usual implied question hovered, and Roger answered it.
“I was born in Kyle of Lochalsh, but I grew up mostly in Inverness. Picked up most of my own Gaelic on the fishing boats in the Minch.” And in the mountains of North Carolina.
Menzies nodded again, for the first time looking down at his hands rather than at Roger.
“Been on a fishing boat in the last twenty years?”
“No, thank God.”
Menzies smiled briefly, but didn’t look up.
“No. You won’t find much of the Gaelic there these days. Spanish, Polish, Estonian… quite a bit of those, but not the Gaelic. Your wife said ye’d spent a number of years in America, so you’ll maybe not have noticed, but it’s not much spoken in public anymore.”