“I have, though not on my own account. You might say it is a message to be passed on for someone else.”
Jamie lifted one quizzical brow, in a gesture so reminiscent of Brianna that Roger felt a small internal start. To cover it, he coughed.
“I—ah—when Brianna went to the stones on Craigh na Dun, I was forced to wait a few weeks until I could follow after her.”
“Aye?” Jamie looked wary, as he always did at any mention of stone circles.
“I went to Inverness,” Roger continued, keeping his eyes on his father-in-law. “I stayed at the house that my father had lived in, and I spent part of the time in sorting through his papers; he was a great saver of letters and bits of old rubbish.”
Jamie nodded, evidently wondering what Roger was on about, but too polite to interrupt him.
“I found a letter.” Roger took a deep breath, feeling his heart thump in his chest. “I committed it to memory, thinking that if I found Claire, I would tell her of it. But then when I found her”—he shrugged—“I was not sure whether I should tell her or not—or tell Brianna.”
“And you are asking me if you should tell them?” Fraser’s brows rose, thick and ruddy, showing his puzzlement.
“Perhaps I am. But thinking on it, it occurred to me that the letter was perhaps of more concern to you than to them.” Now that the moment was at hand, Roger found himself feeling some sympathy for Fraser.
“You’ll know my father was a minister? The letter was to him. I suppose it was written under the seal of confession, in a way—but I imagine death has dissolved this particular seal.”
Roger took a deep breath and closed his eyes, seeing the black letters slanting across the page, in the neat, angular handwriting. He’d read it over more than a hundred times; he was sure of every word.
Dear Reg (the letter said);
I’ve something the matter with my heart. Besides Claire, I mean (says he, with irony). The doctor says it might be years yet, with care, and I hope it is—but there’s the odd chance. The nuns at Bree’s school used to scare the kids into fits about the horrible fate in store for sinners who died unconfessed and unforgiven; damned (if you’ll pardon the expression) if I’m afraid of whatever comes after—if anything. But again—there’s the odd chance, isn’t there?
Not a thing I could say to my parish priest, for obvious reasons. I doubt he’d see the sin in it, even if he didn’t slip out to telephone discreetly for psychiatric help!
But you’re a priest, Reg, if not a Catholic—and more importantly, you’re my friend. You needn’t reply to this; I don’t suppose a reply is possible. But you can listen. One of your great gifts, listening. Had I told you that before?
I’m delaying, though I don’t know why I should. Best have it out.
You’ll recall the favor I asked you a few years ago—about the gravestones at St. Kilda’s? Kind friend that you are, you never asked, but it’s time I should tell you why.
God knows why old Black Jack Randall should have been left out there on a Scottish hill instead of taken home to Sussex for burial. Perhaps no one cared enough to bring him home. Sad to think of; I rather hope it wasn’t that.
There he is, though. If Bree’s ever interested in her history—in my history—she’ll look, and she’ll find him there; the location of his grave is mentioned in the family papers. That’s why I asked you to have the other stone put up nearby. It will stand out—all the other stones in that kirkyard are crumbling away with age.
Claire will take her to Scotland one day; I’m sure of that much. If she goes to St. Kilda’s, she’ll see it—no one goes into an old churchyard and doesn’t have a browse round the stones. If she wonders, if she cares to look further—if she asks Claire—well, that’s as far as I’m prepared to go. I’ve made the gesture; I shall leave it to chance what happens when I’ve gone.
You know all the rubbish Claire talked when she came back. I did all I could to get it out of her head, but she wouldn’t be budged; God, she is a stubborn woman!
You’ll not credit this, perhaps, but when I came last to visit you, I hired a car and went to that damned hill—to Craigh na Dun. I told you about the witches dancing in the circle, just before Claire disappeared. With that eerie sight in mind, standing there in the early light among those stones—I could almost believe her. I touched one. Nothing happened, of course.
And yet. I looked. Looked for the man—for Fraser. And perhaps I found him. At least I found a man of that name, and what I could dredge up of his connections matched what Claire told me of him. Whether she was telling the truth, or whether she had grafted some delusion onto real experience…well, there was a man, I’m sure of that!
You’ll scarcely credit this, but I stood there with my hand on that bloody stone, and wanted nothing more than that it should open, and put me face-to-face with James Fraser. Whoever he was, whenever he was, I wanted nothing more in life than to see him—and to kill him.
I have never seen him—I don’t know that he existed!—and yet I hate this man as I have never hated anyone else. If what Claire said and what I found was true—then I’ve taken her from him, and kept her by me through these years by a lie. Maybe only a lie of omission, but nonetheless a lie for that. I could call that revenge, I suppose.
Priests and poets call revenge a two-edged sword; and the other edge of it is that I’ll never know—if I gave her the choice, would she have stayed with me? Or if I told her that her Jamie survived Culloden, would she have been off to Scotland like a shot?
I cannot think Claire would leave her daughter. I hope she’d not leave me, either…but…if I had any certainty of it, I swear I’d have told her, but I haven’t, and that’s the truth of it.
Fraser—shall I curse him for stealing my wife, or bless him for giving me my daughter? I think these things, and then I stop, appalled that I should be giving a moment’s credence to such a preposterous theory. And yet…I have the oddest sense of James Fraser, almost a memory, as though I must have seen him somewhere. Though likely this is just the product of jealousy and imagination—I know what the bastard looks like, well enough; I see his face on my daughter, day by day!
That’s the queer side of it, though—a sense of obligation. Not just to Bree, though I do think she’s a right to know—later. I told you I had a sense of the bastard? Funny thing is, it’s stayed with me. I can almost feel him, sometimes, looking over my shoulder, standing across the room.
Hadn’t thought of this before—do you suppose I’ll meet him in the sweet by-and-by, if there is one? Funny to think of it. Should we meet as friends, I wonder, with the sins of the flesh behind us? Or end forever locked in some Celtic hell, with our hands wrapped round each other’s throat?
I treated Claire badly—or well, depending how one looks at it. I won’t go into the sordid details; leave it that I’m sorry.
So there it is, Reg. Hate, jealousy, lying, stealing, unfaithfulness, the lot. Not much to balance it save love. I do love her—love them. My women. Maybe it’s not the right kind of love, or not enough. But it’s all I’ve got.
Still, I won’t die unshriven—and I’ll trust you for a conditional absolution. I raised Bree as a Catholic; do you suppose there’s some forlorn hope that she’ll pray for me?
“It was signed, ‘Frank,’ of course,” Roger said.
“Of course,” Jamie echoed softly. He sat quite still, his face unreadable.
Roger didn’t need to read it; he knew well enough the thoughts that were going through the other’s mind. The same thoughts he’d wrestled with, during those weeks between Beltane and Midsummer’s Eve, during the search for Brianna across the ocean, during his captivity—and at the last, in the circle in the rhododendron hell, hearing the song of the standing stones.
If Frank Randall had chosen to keep secret what he’d found, had never placed that stone at St. Kilda’s—would Claire have learned the truth anyway? Perhaps; perhaps not. But it had been the sight of that spurious grave that had led her to tell her daughter the story of Jamie Fraser, and to set Roger on the path of discovery that had led them all to this place, this time.
It had been the stone that had at once sent Claire back to the arms of her Scottish lover—and possibly to her death in those arms. That had given Frank Randall’s daughter back to her other father, and simultaneously condemned her to live in a time not her own; that had resulted in the birth of a red-haired boy who might otherwise not have been—the continuance of Jamie Fraser’s blood. Interest on the debt owed? Roger wondered.
And then there were Roger’s private thoughts, of another boy who might not have been, save for that cryptic stone hint, left by Frank Randall for the sake of forgiveness. Morag and William MacKenzie were not at the Gathering; Roger was unsure whether to be disappointed or relieved.
Jamie Fraser stirred at last, though his eyes stayed fixed on the fire.
“Englishman,” he said softly, and it was a conjuration. The hair rose very slightly on the back of Roger’s neck; he could believe he saw something move in the flames.
Jamie’s big hands spread, cradling his grandson. His face was remote, the flames catching sparks from hair and brows.
“Englishman,” he said, speaking to whatever he saw beyond the flames. “I could wish that we shall meet one day. And I could hope that we shall not.”
Roger waited, hands loose on his knees. Fraser’s eyes were shadowed, his face masked by the flicker of the dancing fire. At last, something like a shudder seemed to go over the big frame; he shook his head as though to clear it, and seemed to realize for the first time that Roger was still there.
“Do I tell her?” Roger said. “Claire?”
The big Highlander’s eyes sharpened.
“Will ye have told Brianna?”
“Not yet; but I will.” He gave back Fraser’s stare, eye for eye. “She is my wife.”
“Forever—if she will.”
Fraser looked toward the Camerons’ fire. Claire’s lithe shape was visible, dark against the brightness.
“I did promise her honesty,” he said at last, very quietly. “Aye, tell her.”
By the fourth day, the slopes of the mountain were filled with new arrivals. Just before dusk, the men began to bring wood, piling it in the burnt space at the foot of the mountain. Each family had its campfire, but here was the great fire, around which everyone gathered each night to see who had come during the day.
As the dark came on, the fires bloomed on the mountainside, dotted here and there among the shallow ledges and sandy pockets. For a moment, I had a vision of the MacKenzie clan badge—a “burning mountain”—and realized suddenly what it was. Not a volcano, as I had thought. No, it was the image of a Gathering like this one, the fires of families burning in the dark, a signal to all the clan was present—and together. And for the first time, I understood the motto that went with the image: Luceo non uro; I shine, not burn.