Her eyes were closed against the dizziness that threatened to engulf her; she felt, rather than saw, the hand that touched her and tenderly smoothed the locks back from her face.
“He went on loving her,” she whispered, as much to herself as to anyone else. “He didn’t forget her.”
“Of course he didna forget her.” She opened her eyes to see Ian’s long face and kind brown eyes six inches away. A broad work-worn hand rested on hers, warm and hard, a hand even larger than her own.
“Neither did we,” he said.
“Will ye no have a bit more, Cousin Brianna?” Joan, Young Jamie’s wife, smiled across the table, serving spoon poised invitingly above the crumbled remains of a gigantic gooseberry tart.
“Thank you, no. I couldn’t eat another bite,” Brianna said, smiling back. “I’m stuffed!”
This made Matthew and his little brother Henry giggle loudly, but a gimlet gleam from their grandmother’s eye shut them up sharply. Looking round the table, though, Brianna could see suppressed laughter blooming on all the faces; from grown-ups to toddlers, they all seemed to find her slightest remark endlessly entertaining.
It was neither her unorthodox costume nor the sheer novelty of seeing a stranger, she thought—even one stranger than most. There was something else; some current of joy that ran among the members of the family, unseen but lively as electricity.
She realized only slowly what it was; a remark from Ian brought it into focus.
“We didna think that Jamie would ever have a bairn of his own.” Ian’s smile across the table was warm enough to melt ice. “You’ll never have seen him, though?”
She shook her head, swallowing the remains of the last bite, smiling back in spite of her full mouth. That was it, she thought; they were delighted with her not so much for her sake, but for Jamie’s. They loved him, and they were happy not for themselves but for him.
That realization brought tears to her eyes. Laoghaire’s accusations had shaken her, wild as they were, and it was a great comfort to realize that to all of these people who knew him well, Jamie Fraser was neither a liar nor a wicked man; he was indeed the man her mother thought him.
Mistaking her emotion for choking, Young Jamie pounded her helpfully on the back, making her choke in good earnest.
“Will ye have written Uncle Jamie, then, to say as ye were coming to us?” he asked, ignoring her coughing and red-faced spluttering.
“No,” she said hoarsely. “I don’t know where he is.”
Jenny’s gull-winged brows went up.
“Aye, ye said that; I’d forgotten.”
“Do you know where he is now? He and my mother?” Brianna bent forward anxiously, brushing pastry crumbs from her jabot.
Jenny smiled and rose from the table.
“Aye, I do—more or less. If ye’ve eaten your fill, d’ye come with me, lassie. I’ll fetch his last letter for ye.”
Brianna rose to follow Jenny, but stopped abruptly near the door. She had vaguely noticed some paintings on the walls of the parlor earlier, but hadn’t really looked at them, in the rush of emotion and event. She looked at this one, though.
Two little boys with red-gold hair, stiffly solemn in kilts and jackets, white shirts with frills showing bright against the dark coat of a huge dog that sat beside them, tongue lolling in patient boredom.
The older boy was tall and fine-featured; he sat straight and proud, chin lifted, one hand resting on the dog’s head, the other protectively on the shoulder of the small brother who stood between his knees.
It was the younger boy Brianna stared at, though. His face was round and snub-nosed, cheeks translucent and ruddy as apples. Wide blue eyes, slightly slanted, looked out under a bell of bright hair combed into an unnatural tidiness. The pose was formal, done in classic eighteenth-century style, but there was something in the robust, stocky little figure that made her smile and reach a finger to touch his face.
“Aren’t you a sweetie,” she said softly.
“Jamie was a sweet laddie, but a stubborn wee fiend, forbye.” Jenny’s voice by her ear startled her. “Beat him or coax him, it made no difference; if he’d made up his mind, it stayed made up. Come wi’ me; there’s another picture you’ll like to see, I think.”
The second portrait hung on the landing of the stairs, looking thoroughly out of place. From below she could see the ornate gilded frame, its heavy carving quite at odds with the solid, battered comfort of the house’s other furnishings. It reminded her of pictures in museums; this homely setting seemed incongruous.
As she followed Jenny onto the landing the glare of light from the window disappeared, leaving the painting’s surface flat and clear before her.
She gasped, and felt the hair rise on her forearms, under the linen of her shirt.
“It’s remarkable, aye?” Jenny looked from the painting to Brianna and back again, her own features marked with something between pride and awe.
“Remarkable!” Brianna agreed, swallowing.
“Ye see why we kent ye at once,” her aunt went on, laying a loving hand against the carved frame.
“Yes. Yes, I can see that.”
“It will be my mother, aye? Your grandmother, Ellen MacKenzie.”
“Yes,” Brianna said. “I know.” Dust motes stirred up by their footsteps whirled lazily through the afternoon light from the window. Brianna felt rather as though she was whirling with them, no longer anchored to reality.
Two hundred years from now, she had—I will? she thought wildly—stood in front of this portrait in the National Portrait Gallery, furiously denying the truth that it showed.
Ellen MacKenzie looked out at her now as she had then; long-necked and regal, slanted eyes showing a humor that did not quite touch the tender mouth. It wasn’t a mirror image, by any means; Ellen’s forehead was high, narrower than Brianna’s, and the chin was round, not pointed, her whole face somewhat softer and less bold in its features.
But the resemblance was there, and pronounced enough to be startling; the wide cheekbones and lush red hair were the same. And around her neck was the string of pearls, gold roundels bright in the soft spring sun.
“Who painted it?” Brianna said at last, though she didn’t need to hear the answer. The tag by the painting in the museum had given the artist as “Unknown.” But having seen the portrait of the two little boys below, Brianna knew, all right. This picture was less skilled, an earlier effort—but the same hand had painted that hair and skin.
“My mother herself,” Jenny was saying, her voice filled with a wistful pride. “She’d a great hand for drawing and painting. I often wished I had the gift.”
Brianna felt her fingers curl unconsciously, the illusion of the brush between them momentarily so vivid she could have sworn she felt smooth wood.
That’s where, she thought, with a small shiver, and heard an almost audible click! of recognition as a tiny piece of her past dropped into place. That’s where I got it.
Frank Randall had joked that he couldn’t draw a straight line; Claire that she drew nothing else. But Brianna had the gift of line and curve, of light and shadow—and now she had the source of the gift, as well.
What else? she thought suddenly. What else did she have that had once belonged to the woman in the picture, to the boy with the stubborn tilt to his head?
“Ned Gowan brought me this from Leoch,” Jenny said, touching the frame with a certain reverence. “He saved it, when the English battered down the castle, after the Rising.” She smiled faintly. “He’s a great one for family, Ned is. He’s a Lowlander from Edinburgh, wi’ no kin of his own, but he’s taken the MacKenzies for his clan—even now the clan’s no more.”
“No more?” Brianna blurted. “They’re all dead?” The horror in her voice made Jenny glance at her, surprised.
“Och, no. I didna mean that, lass. But Leoch’s gone,” she added, in a softer tone. “And the last chiefs with it—Colum and his brother Dougal…they died for the Stuarts.”
She had known that, of course; Claire had told her. What was surprising was the sudden rush of an unexpected grief; regret for these strangers of her newfound blood. With an effort, she swallowed the thickening in her throat and turned to follow Jenny up the stairs.
“Was Leoch a great castle?” she asked. Her aunt paused, hand on the banister.
“I dinna ken,” she said. Jenny glanced back at Ellen’s picture, something like regret in her eyes.
“I never saw it—and now it’s gone.”
Entering the bedroom on the second floor was like entering an undersea cavern. The room was small, as all the rooms were, with low beams smoked black from years of peat fires, but the walls were fresh and white, and the room itself was filled with a greenish, wavering light that spilled through two large windows, filtered by the leaves of the swaying rose brier.
Here and there some bright thing blinked or glowed like a reef fish in the soft gloom; a painted doll that lay on the hearthrug, abandoned by a grandchild, a Chinese basket with a pierced coin tied to its lid by way of ornament. A brass candlestick on the table, a small painting on the wall, rich colors deep against the whitewash.
Jenny went at once to the big armoire that stood at the side of the room, and stood on tiptoe to bring down a large morocco-covered box, its corners worn with age. As she put back the lid, Brianna caught the glint of metal and a small sharp flash, as of sunlight on jewels.
“Here it is.” Jenny brought out a thick, folded wad of grimy paper, much traveled and much read by the looks of it, and put it into Brianna’s hand. It had been sealed; a smudge of greasy wax still clung to the end of one sheet.
“They’re in the Colony of North Carolina, but they dinna live near any town,” Jenny explained. “Jamie writes a bit in the evenings when he can, and keeps the bits all by him, till either he or Fergus takes the journey down to Cross Creek, or a traveler passes by who will carry the letter. That suits him; he doesna write easy—especially since he broke his hand that time ago.”
Brianna started at the casual reference, but her aunt’s calm face showed no special awareness.
“Sit ye down, lassie.” She waved a hand, giving Brianna the choice of stool or bed.
“Thank you,” Brianna murmured, taking the stool. So perhaps Jenny didn’t know everything about Jamie and Black Jack Randall? The notion that she might know things about this unseen man that not even his beloved sister knew was in a way unsettling. To dismiss the thought, she hurriedly opened the letter.
The scrawled words sprang out at her, black and vivid. She had seen this writing before—its cramped, difficult letters, with the big, looping tails, but that had been on a document two hundred years old, its ink brown and faded, its writing constrained by careful thought and formality. Here he had felt free—the writing rolled across the page in a bold broken scrawl, the lines tilting drunkenly up at the ends. It was untidy, but readable for all that.
Fraser’s Ridge, Monday 19 September
My dearest Jenny,