“Mmm,” I said, setting the cup down. “It’s been a long time since I tasted Oolong.”
Mrs. Graham nodded, beaming at my pleasure in her refreshments. She had clearly gone to some trouble, laying out handmade lace mats beneath the eggshell cups and providing thick clotted cream with the scones.
“Aye, I couldna get it during the War, ye know. It’s the best for the readings, though. Had a terrible time with that Earl Grey. The leaves fall apart so fast, it’s hard to tell anything at all.”
“Oh, you read tea leaves?” I asked, mildly amused. Nothing could be farther from the popular conception of the gypsy fortune-teller than Mrs. Graham, with her short, iron-grey perm and triple-stranded pearl choker. A swallow of tea ran visibly down the long, stringy neck and disappeared beneath the gleaming beads.
“Why, certainly I do, my dear. Just as my grandmother taught me, and her grandmother before her. Drink up your cup, and I’ll see what you have there.”
She was silent for a long time, once in a while tilting the cup to catch the light, or rolling it slowly between lean palms to get a different angle.
She set the cup down carefully, as though afraid it might blow up in her face. The grooves on either side of her mouth had deepened, and her brows pressed together in what looked like puzzlement.
“Well,” she said finally. “That’s one of the stranger ones I’ve seen.”
“Oh?” I was still amused, but beginning to be curious. “Am I going to meet a tall dark stranger, or journey across the sea?”
“Could be.” Mrs. Graham had caught my ironic tone, and echoed it, smiling slightly. “And could not. That’s what’s odd about your cup, my dear. Everything in it’s contradictory. There’s the curved leaf for a journey, but it’s crossed by the broken one that means staying put. And strangers there are, to be sure, several of them. And one of them’s your husband, if I read the leaves aright.”
My amusement dissipated somewhat. After six years apart, and six months together, my husband was still something of a stranger. Though I failed to see how a tea leaf could know it.
Mrs. Graham’s brow was still furrowed. “Let me see your hand, child,” she said.
The hand holding mine was bony, but surprisingly warm. A scent of lavender water emanated from the neat part of the grizzled head bent over my palm. She stared into my hand for quite a long time, now and then tracing one of the lines with a finger, as though following a map whose roads all petered out in sandy washes and deserted wastes.
“Well, what is it?” I asked, trying to maintain a light air. “Or is my fate too horrible to be revealed?”
Mrs. Graham raised quizzical eyes and looked thoughtfully at my face, but retained her hold on my hand. She shook her head, pursing her lips.
“Oh, no, my dear. It’s not your fate is in your hand. Only the seed of it.” The birdlike head cocked to one side, considering. “The lines in your hand change, ye know. At another point in your life, they may be quite different than they are now.”
“I didn’t know that. I thought you were born with them, and that was that.” I was repressing an urge to jerk my hand away. “What’s the point of palm reading, then?” I didn’t wish to sound rude, but I found this scrutiny a bit unsettling, especially following on the heels of that tea-leaf reading. Mrs. Graham smiled unexpectedly, and folded my fingers closed over my palm.
“Why, the lines of your palm show what ye are, dear. That’s why they change—or should. They don’t, in some people; those unlucky enough never to change in themselves, but there are few like that.” She gave my folded hand a squeeze and patted it. “I doubt that you’re one of those. Your hand shows quite a lot of change already, for one so young. That would likely be the War, of course,” she said, as though to herself.
I was curious again, and opened my palm voluntarily.
“What am I, then, according to my hand?”
Mrs. Graham frowned, but did not pick up my hand again.
“I canna just say. It’s odd, for most hands have a likeness to them. Mind, I’d no just say that it’s ‘see one, you’ve seen them all,’ but it’s often like that—there are patterns, you know.” She smiled suddenly, an oddly engaging grin, displaying very white and patently false teeth.
“That’s how a fortune-teller works, you know. I do it for the church fete every year—or did, before the War; suppose I’ll do it again now. But a girl comes into the tent—and there am I, done up in a turban with a peacock feather borrowed from Mr. Donaldson, and ‘robes of oriental splendor’—that’s the vicar’s dressing gown, all over peacocks it is and yellow as the sun—anyway, I look her over while I pretend to be watching her hand, and I see she’s got her blouse cut down to her breakfast, cheap scent, and earrings down to her shoulders. I needn’t have a crystal ball to be tellin’ her she’ll have a child before the next year’s fete.” Mrs. Graham, paused, grey eyes alight with mischief. “Though if the hand you’re holding is bare, it’s tactful to predict first that she’ll marry soon.”
I laughed, and so did she. “So you don’t look at their hands at all, then?” I asked. “Except to check for rings?”
She looked surprised. “Oh, of course you do. It’s just that you know ahead of time what you’ll see. Generally.” She nodded at my open hand. “But that is not a pattern I’ve seen before. The large thumb, now”—she did lean forward then and touch it lightly—“that wouldn’t change much. Means you’re strong-minded, and have a will not easily crossed.” She twinkled at me. “Reckon your husband could have told ye that. Likewise about that one.” She pointed to the fleshy mound at the base of the thumb.
“What is it?”
“The Mount of Venus, it’s called.” She pursed her thin lips primly together, though the corners turned irrepressibly up. “In a man, ye’d say it means he likes the lasses. For a woman, ’tis a bit different. To be polite about it, I’ll make a bit of a prediction for you, and say your husband isna like to stray far from your bed.” She gave a surprisingly deep and bawdy chuckle, and I blushed slightly.
The elderly housekeeper pored over my hand again, stabbing a pointed forefinger here and there to mark her words.
“Now, there, a well-marked lifeline; you’re in good health, and likely to stay so. The lifeline’s interrupted, meaning your life’s changed markedly—well, that’s true of us all, is it not? But yours is more chopped-up, like, than I usually see; all bits and pieces. And your marriage-line, now”—she shook her head again—“it’s divided; that’s not unusual, means two marriages…”
My reaction was slight, and immediately suppressed, but she caught the flicker and looked up at once. I thought she probably was quite a shrewd fortune-teller, at that. The grey head shook reassuringly at me.
“No, no, lass. It doesna mean anything’s like to happen to your good man. It’s only that if it did,” she emphasized the “if” with a slight squeeze of my hand, “you’d not be one to pine away and waste the rest of your life in mourning. What it means is, you’re one of those can love again if your first love’s lost.”
She squinted nearsightedly at my palm, running a short, ridged nail gently down the deep marriage line. “But most divided lines are broken—yours is forked.” She looked up with a roguish smile. “Sure you’re not a bigamist, on the quiet, like?”
I shook my head, laughing. “No. When would I have the time?” Then I turned my hand, showing the outer edge.
“I’ve heard that small marks on the side of the hand indicate how many children you’ll have?” My tone was casual, I hoped. The edge of my palm was disappointingly smooth.
Mrs. Graham flicked a scornful hand at this idea.
“Pah! After ye’ve had a bairn or two, ye might show lines there. More like you’d have them on your face. Proves nothing at all beforehand.”
“Oh, it doesn’t?” I was foolishly relieved to hear this. I was going to ask whether the deep lines across the base of my wrist meant anything (a potential for suicide?), but we were interrupted at that point by the Reverend Wakefield coming into the kitchen bearing the empty tea cups. He set them on the drainboard and began a loud and clumsy fumbling through the cupboard, obviously in hopes of provoking help.
Mrs. Graham sprang to her feet to defend the sanctity of her kitchen, and pushing the Reverend adroitly to one side, set about assembling tea things on a tray for the study. He drew me to one side, safely out of the way.
“Why don’t you come to the study and have another cup of tea with me and your husband, Mrs. Randall? We’ve made really a most gratifying discovery.”
I could see that in spite of outward composure, he was bursting with the glee of whatever they had found, like a small boy with a toad in his pocket. Plainly I was going to have to go and read Captain Jonathan Randall’s laundry bill, his receipt for boot repairs, or some document of similar fascination.
Frank was so absorbed in the tattered documents that he scarcely looked up when I entered the study. He reluctantly surrendered them to the vicar’s podgy hands, and came round to stand behind the Reverend Wakefield and peer over his shoulder, as though he could not bear to let the papers out of his sight for a moment.
“Yes?” I said politely, fingering the dirty bits of paper. “Ummm, yes, very interesting.” In fact, the spidery handwriting was so faded and so ornate that it hardly seemed worth the trouble of deciphering it. One sheet, better preserved than the rest, had some sort of crest at the top.
“The Duke of…Sandringham, is it?” I asked, peering at the crest, with its faded leopard couchant, and the printing below, more legible than the handwriting.
“Yes, indeed,” the vicar said, beaming even more. “An extinct title, now, you know.”
I didn’t, but nodded intelligently, being no stranger to historians in the manic grip of discovery. It was seldom necessary to do more than nod periodically, saying “Oh, really?” or “How perfectly fascinating!” at appropriate intervals.
After a certain amount of deferring back and forth between Frank and the vicar, the latter won the honor of telling me about their discovery. Evidently, all this rubbish made it appear that Frank’s ancestor, the notorious Black Jack Randall, had not been merely a gallant soldier for the Crown, but a trusted—and secret—agent of the Duke of Sandringham.
“Almost an agent provocateur, wouldn’t you say, Dr. Randall?” The vicar graciously handed the ball back to Frank, who seized it and ran.
“Yes, indeed. The language is very guarded, of course.…” He turned the pages gently with a scrubbed forefinger.
“Oh, really?” I said.
“But it seems from this that Jonathan Randall was entrusted with the job of stirring up Jacobite sentiments, if any existed, among the prominent Scottish families in his area. The point being to smoke out any baronets and clan chieftains who might be harboring secret sympathies in that direction. But that’s odd. Wasn’t Sandringham a suspected Jacobite himself?” Frank turned to the vicar, a frown of inquiry on his face. The vicar’s smooth, bald head creased in an identical frown.
“Why, yes, I believe you’re right. But wait, let’s check in Cameron”—he made a dive for the bookshelf, crammed with calf-bound volumes—“he’s sure to mention Sandringham.”
“How perfectly fascinating,” I murmured, allowing my attention to wander to the huge corkboard that covered one wall of the study from floor to ceiling.
It was covered with an amazing assortment of things; mostly papers of one sort or another, gas bills, correspondence, notices from the Diocesan Council, loose pages of novels, notes in the vicar’s own hand, but also small items like keys, bottle caps, and what appeared to be small car parts, attached with tacks and string.
I browsed idly through the miscellanea, keeping half an ear tuned to the argument going on behind me. (The Duke of Sandringham probably was a Jacobite, they decided.) My attention was caught by a genealogical chart, tacked up with special care in a spot by itself, using four tacks, one to a corner. The top of the chart included names dated in the early seventeenth century. But it was the name at the bottom of the chart that had caught my eye: “Roger W. (MacKenzie) Wakefield,” it read.
“Excuse me,” I said, interrupting a final sputter of dispute as to whether the leopard in the Duke’s crest had a lily in its paw, or was it meant to be a crocus? “Is this your son’s chart?”
“Eh? Oh, why, yes, yes it is.” Distracted, the vicar hurried over, beaming once more. He detached the chart tenderly from the wall and laid it on the table in front of me.
“I didn’t want him to forget his own family, you see,” he explained. “It’s quite an old lineage, back to the sixteen hundreds.” His stubby forefinger traced the line of descent almost reverently.
“I gave him my own name because it seemed more suitable, as he lives here, but I didn’t want him to forget where he came from.” He made an apologetic grimace. “I’m afraid my own family is nothing to boast of, genealogically. Vicars and curates, with the occasional bookseller thrown in for variety, and only traceable back to 1762 or so. Rather poor record-keeping, you know,” he said, wagging his head remorsefully over the lethargy of his ancestors.
It was growing late by the time we finally left the vicarage, with the vicar promising to take the letters to town for copying first thing in the morning. Frank babbled happily of spies and Jacobites most of the way back to Mrs. Baird’s. Finally, though, he noticed my quietness.
“What is it, love?” he asked, taking my arm solicitously. “Not feeling well?” This was asked with a mingled tone of concern and hope.
“No, I’m quite well. I was only thinking…” I hesitated, because we had discussed this matter before. “I was thinking about Roger.”
I gave a sigh of impatience. “Really, Frank! You can be so…oblivious! Roger, the Reverend Wakefield’s son.”
“Oh. Yes, of course,” he said vaguely. “Charming child. What about him?”
“Well…only that there are a lot of children like that. Orphaned, you know.”
He gave me a sharp look, and shook his head.
“No, Claire. Really, I’d like to, but I’ve told you how I feel about adoption. It’s just…I couldn’t feel properly toward a child that’s not…well, not of my blood. No doubt that’s ridiculous and selfish of me, but there it is. Maybe I’ll change my mind in time, but now.…” We walked a few steps in a barbed silence. Suddenly he stopped and turned to me, gripping my hands.
“Claire,” he said huskily, “I want our child. You’re the most important thing in the world to me. I want you to be happy, above all else, but I want…well, I want to keep you to myself. I’m afraid a child from outside, one we had no real relationship with, would seem an intruder, and I’d resent it. But to be able to give you a child, see it grow in you, see it born…then I’d feel as though it were more an…extension of you, perhaps. And me. A real part of the family.” His eyes were wide, pleading.
“Yes, all right. I understand.” I was willing to abandon the topic—for now. I turned to go on walking, but he reached out and took me in his arms.
“Claire. I love you.” The tenderness in his voice was overwhelming, and I leaned my head against his jacket, feeling his warmth and the strength of his arms around me.
“I love you too.” We stood locked together for a moment, swaying slightly in the wind that swept down the road. Suddenly Frank drew back a bit, smiling down at me.
“Besides,” he said softly, smoothing the wind-blown hair back from my face, “we haven’t given up yet, have we?”
I smiled back. “No.”
He took my hand, tucking it snugly beneath his elbow, and we turned toward our lodgings.
“Game for another try?”
“Yes. Why not?” We strolled, hand in hand, back toward the Gereside Road. It was the sight of the Baragh Mhor, the Pictish stone that stands at the corner of the road there, that made me remember things ancient.
“I forgot!” I exclaimed. “I have something exciting to show you.” Frank looked down at me and pulled me closer. He squeezed my hand.
“So have I,” he said, grinning. “You can show me yours tomorrow.”
When tomorrow came, though, we had other things to do. I had forgotten that we had planned a day trip to the Great Glen of Loch Ness.
It was a long drive through the Glen, and we left early in the morning, before sunup. After the hurry to the waiting car through the freezing dawn, it was cozy to relax under the rug and feel the warmth stealing back into my hands and feet. Along with it came a most delicious drowsiness, and I fell blissfully asleep against Frank’s shoulder, my last conscious sight the driver’s head in red-rimmed silhouette against the dawning sky.
It was after nine when we arrived, and the guide Frank had called for was awaiting us on the edge of the loch with a small sailing skiff.
“An’ it suits ye, sir, I thought we’d take a wee sail down the loch-side to Urquhart Castle. Perhaps we’ll sup a bit there, before goin’ on.” The guide, a dour-looking little man in weather-beaten cotton shirt and twill trousers, stowed the picnic hamper tidily beneath the seat, and offered me a callused hand down into the well of the boat.
It was a beautiful day, with the burgeoning greenery of the steep banks blurring in the ruffled surface of the loch. Our guide, despite his dour appearance, was knowledgeable and talkative, pointing out the islands, castles, and ruins that rimmed the long, narrow loch.
“Yonder, that’s Urquhart Castle.” He pointed to a smooth-faced wall of stone, barely visible through the trees. “Or what’s left of it. ’Twas cursed by the witches of the Glen, and saw one unhappiness after another.”
He told us the story of Mary Grant, daughter of the laird of Urquhart Castle, and her lover, Donald Donn, poet son of MacDonald of Bohuntin. Forbidden to meet because of her father’s objection to the latter’s habits of “lifting” any cattle he came across (an old and honorable Highland profession, the guide assured us), they met anyway. The father got wind of it, Donald was lured to a false rendezvous and thus taken. Condemned to die, he begged to be beheaded like a gentleman, rather than hanged as a felon. This request was granted, and the young man led to the block, repeating “The Devil will take the Laird of Grant out of his shoes, and Donald Donn shall not be hanged.” He wasn’t, and legend reports that as his severed head rolled from the block, it spoke, saying, “Mary, lift ye my head.”