I thought suddenly of something I had not remembered in many years; a small dark closet of a room in Paris, hidden behind an apothecary’s shop. The walls covered with a honeycomb of shelves, each cell holding a polished skull. Animals of many kinds, from shrews to wolves, mice to bears.
And with my hand on the head of my unknown friend, I heard Master Raymond’s voice, as clear in memory as though he stood beside me.
“Sympathy?” he had said as I touched the high curve of a polished elk’s skull. “It is an unusual emotion to feel for a bone, madonna.”
But he had known what I meant. I knew he did, for when I asked him why he kept these skulls, he had smiled and said, “They are company, of a sort.”
I knew what he meant, too; for surely the gentleman whose skull I kept had been company for me, in a very dark and lonely place. Not for the first time, I wondered whether he had in fact had anything to do with the apparition I had seen on the mountain; the Indian with his face painted black.
The ghost—if that is what he was—had not smiled or spoken aloud. I hadn’t seen his teeth, which would be my only point of comparison with the skull I held—for I found that I was holding it, rubbing a thumb over the jagged edge of a cracked incisor. I lifted the skull to the light, examining it closely by the soft sunset light.
The teeth on the one side had been shattered; cracked and splintered as though he had been struck violently in the mouth, perhaps by a rock or a club—the stock of a gun? On the other side they were whole; in very good condition, actually. I was no expert but thought the skull was that of a mature man; one in his late thirties or early forties. A man of that age should show a good bit of wear to his teeth, given the Indians’ diet of ground corn, which—owing to the manner of preparation, pounded between flat stones—contained quite a bit of ground stone as well.
The incisors and canine on the good side were scarcely worn at all, though. I turned the skull over, to judge the abrasion of the molars, and stopped cold.
Very cold, in spite of the fire at my back. As cold as I had been in the lost, fireless dark, alone on the mountain with a dead man’s head. For the late sun now struck sparks from my hands: from the silver band of my wedding ring—and from the silver fillings in my late companion’s mouth.
I sat staring for a moment, then turned the skull over and set it gently down on the desk, careful as though it were made of glass.
“My God,” I said, all tiredness forgotten. “My God,” I said, to the empty eyes and the lopsided grin. “Who were you?”
“Who do ye think he can have been?” Jamie touched the skull gingerly. We had no more than moments; Duncan had gone to the privy, Ian to feed the pig. I couldn’t bring myself to wait, though—I had had to tell someone at once.
“I haven’t the faintest idea. Except, of course, that he has to have been someone…like me.” A violent shiver ran over me. Jamie glanced at me, and frowned.
“Ye havena take a chill, have ye, Sassenach?”
“No.” I smiled weakly up at him. “Goose walking on my grave, I expect.”
He plucked my shawl from the hook by the door and swung it around me. His hands stayed on my shoulders, warm and comforting.
“It means the one thing else, doesn’t it?” he asked quietly. “It means there is another…place. Perhaps nearby.”
Another stone circle—or something like it. I had thought of that, too, and the notion made me shudder once again. Jamie looked thoughtfully at the skull, then drew the handkerchief from his sleeve and draped it gently over the empty eyes.
“I’ll bury him after supper,” he said.
“Oh, supper.” I pushed my hair behind my ear, trying to get my scattered thoughts to focus on food. “Yes, I’ll see if I can find some eggs. That will be quick.”
“Dinna trouble yourself, Sassenach.” Jamie peered into the pot on the hearth. “We can eat this.”
This time, the shudder was purely one of fastidiousness.
“Ugh,” I said. Jamie grinned at me.
“Nothing wrong wi’ good barley crowdie, is there?”
“Assuming there is such a thing,” I replied, looking into the pot with distaste. “This smells more like distiller’s mash.” Made with wet grain, insufficiently cooked and left standing, the cold, scummy soup was already giving off a yeasty whiff of fermentation.
“Speaking of which,” I said, giving the opened sack of damp barley a poke with my toe, “this needs to be spread to dry, before it starts to mold, if it hasn’t already.”
Jamie was staring at the disgusting soup, brows furrowed in thought.
“Aye?” he said absently, then, coming to consciousness, “Oh, aye. I’ll do it.” He twisted shut the top of the bag, and heaved it onto his shoulder. On the way out the door, he paused, looking at the shrouded skull.
“You said ye didna think him Christian,” he said, and glanced curiously at me. “Why was that, Sassenach?”
I hesitated, but there was no time to tell him about my dream—if that’s what it had been. I could hear Duncan and Ian in conversation, coming toward the house.
“No particular reason,” I said, with a shrug.
“Aye, well,” he said. “We’ll give him the benefit o’ the doubt.”
LETTER-WRITING: THE GREAT ART O’ LOVE
Oxford, March 1971
Roger supposed that it must rain as much in Inverness as it did in Oxford, but somehow he had never minded the northern rain. The cold Scottish wind sweeping in off the Moray Firth was exhilarating and the drenching rain both stimulation and refreshment to the spirit.
But that had been Scotland, when Brianna was with him. Now she was in America, he in England, and Oxford was cold and dull, all its streets and buildings gray as the ash of dead fires. Rain pattered on the shoulders of his scholar’s gown as he dashed across the quad, shielding an armload of papers under the poplin folds. Once in the shelter of the porter’s lodge, he stopped to shake himself, doglike, flinging droplets over the stone passage.
“Any letters?” he asked.
“Think so, Mr. Wakefield. Just a sec.” Martin disappeared into his inner sanctum, leaving Roger to read the names of the College’s war dead, carved on the stone tablet inside the entry.
George Vanlandingham, Esq. The Honorable Phillip Menzies. Joseph William Roscoe. Not for the first time, Roger found himself wondering about those dead heroes and what they had been like. Since meeting Brianna and her mother, he’d found that the past too often wore a disturbingly human face.
“Here you are, Mr. Wakefield.” Martin leaned beaming across the counter, holding out a thin sheaf of letters. “One from the States today,” he added, with a broad wink.
Roger felt an answering grin break out on his face, and a warm glow spread at once from his chest through his limbs, dispelling the chill of the rainy day.
“Will we be seeing your young woman up soon, Mr. Wakefield?” Martin craned his neck, peering frankly at the letter with its U.S. stamps. The porter had met Brianna when she had come down with Roger just before Christmas, and had fallen under her spell.
“I hope so. Perhaps in the summer. Thanks!”
He turned toward his staircase, tucking the letters carefully into the sleeve of his gown while he groped for his key. He felt a mingled sense of elation and dismay at thought of the summer. She’d said she’d come in July—but July was still four months away. In some moods, he didn’t think he’d last four days.
Roger folded the letter again and tucked it into his inside pocket, next to his heart. She wrote every few days, from brief notes to long screeds, and each of her letters left him with a small warm glow that lasted usually until the next arrived.
At the same time, her letters were faintly unsatisfactory these days. Still warmly affectionate, always signed “Love,” always saying she missed him and wanted him with her. No longer the sort of thing that burned the page, though.
Perhaps it was natural; a normal progression as they knew each other longer; no one could go on writing passionate missives day after day, not with any honesty.
No doubt it was only his imagination that Brianna seemed to hold back a bit in her letters. He could do without the excesses of one friend’s girl, who had clipped bits of her pubic hair and included them in a letter—though he rather admired the sentiment behind the gesture.
He took a bite of his sandwich and chewed absentmindedly, thinking of the latest article Fiona had showed him. Now married, Fiona considered herself an expert on matters matrimonial, and took a sisterly interest in the bumpy course of Roger’s love affair.
She was constantly clipping helpful tips from women’s magazines and mailing them to him. The latest had been a piece from My Weekly, entitled “How to Intrigue a Man.” Sauce for the gander, Fiona had written pointedly in the margin.
“Share his interests,” one tip advised. “If you think football’s a loss, but he’s dead keen, sit down beside him and ask about Arsenal’s chances the week. If football’s boring, he isn’t.”
Roger smiled a little grimly. He’d been sharing Brianna’s interests, all right, if tracking her bloody parents through their hair-raising history counted as a pastime. Damn little of that he could share with her, though.
“Be coy,” said another of the magazine’s tips. “Nothing piques a man’s interest more than an air of reserve. Don’t let him get too close, too soon.”
It occurred to Roger to wonder whether Brianna had been reading similar advice in American magazines, but he dismissed the thought. She wasn’t above reading fashion magazines—he had seen her do it on occasion—but Brianna Randall was as incapable of playing that sort of silly game as he was himself.
No, she wouldn’t put him off just to raise his interest in her; what would be the point? Surely she knew just how much he cared about her.
Did she, though? With a qualm of uneasiness, Roger recalled another of My Weekly’s tips to the lovelorn.
“Don’t assume he can read your mind,” the article said. “Give him a hint of how you feel.”
Roger took a random bite of the sandwich and chewed, oblivious to its contents. Well, he’d hinted, all right. Come out and bared his bloody soul. And she’d promptly leapt into a plane and buggered off to Boston.
“Don’t be too aggressive,” he murmured, quoting Tip #14, and snorted. The woman don next to him edged slightly away.
Roger sighed and deposited the bitten sandwich distastefully on the plastic tray. He picked up the cup of what the dining hall was pleased to call coffee, but didn’t drink it, merely sat with it between his hands, absorbing its meager warmth.
The trouble was that while he thought he had succeeded in deflecting Brianna’s attention from the past, he had been unable to ignore it himself. Claire and that bloody Highlander of hers obsessed him; they might as well have been his own family, for the fascination they held.
“Always be honest.” Tip #3. If he had been, if he’d helped her to find out everything, perhaps the ghost of Jamie Fraser would be laid now—and so would Roger.