I didn’t go upstairs to bed that night, either. We didn’t talk much, just lay close together in the narrow bed, scarcely moving, so as not to jar his injured arm. The rest of the house was quiet, everyone safely in bed, and there was no sound but the hissing of the fire, the sigh of the wind, and the scratch of Ellen’s rosebush at the window, insistent as the demands of love.
“Do ye know?” he said softly, somewhere in the black, small hours of the night. “Do ye know what it’s like to be with someone that way? To try all ye can, and seem never to have the secret of them?”
“Yes,” I said, thinking of Frank. “Yes, I do know.”
“I thought perhaps ye did.” He was quiet for a moment, and then his hand touched my hair lightly, a shadowy blur in the firelight.
“And then…” he whispered, “then to have it back again, that knowing. To be free in all ye say or do, and know that it is right.”
“To say ‘I love you,’ and mean it with all your heart,” I said softly to the dark.
“Aye,” he answered, barely audible. “To say that.”
His hand rested on my hair, and without knowing quite how it happened, I found myself curled against him, my head just fitting in the hollow of his shoulder.
“For so many years,” he said, “for so long, I have been so many things, so many different men.” I felt him swallow, and he shifted slightly, the linen of his nightshirt rustling with starch.
“I was Uncle to Jenny’s children, and Brother to her and Ian. ‘Milord’ to Fergus, and ‘Sir’ to my tenants. ‘Mac Dubh’ to the men of Ardsmuir and ‘MacKenzie’ to the other servants at Helwater. ‘Malcolm the printer,’ then, and ‘Jamie Roy’ at the docks.” The hand stroked my hair, slowly, with a whispering sound like the wind outside. “But here,” he said, so softly I could barely hear him, “here in the dark, with you…I have no name.”
I lifted my face toward his, and took the warm breath of him between my own lips.
“I love you,” I said, and did not need to tell him how I meant it.
I MEET A LAWYER
As I had predicted, eighteenth-century germs were no match for a modern antibiotic. Jamie’s fever had virtually disappeared within twenty-four hours, and within the next two days the inflammation in his arm began to subside as well, leaving no more than a reddening about the wound itself and a very slight oozing of pus when pressed.
On the fourth day, after satisfying myself that he was mending nicely, I dressed the wound lightly with coneflower salve, bandaged it again, and left to dress and make my own toilet upstairs.
Ian, Janet, Young Ian, and the servants had all put their heads in at intervals over the last few days, to see how Jamie progressed. Jenny had been conspicuously absent from these inquiries, but I knew that she was still entirely aware of everything that happened in her house. I hadn’t announced my intention of coming upstairs, yet when I opened the door to my bedroom, there was a large pitcher of hot water standing by the ewer, gently steaming, and a fresh cake of soap laid alongside it.
I picked it up and sniffed. Fine-milled French soap, perfumed with lily of the valley, it was a delicate comment on my status in the household—honored guest, to be sure; but not one of the family, who would all make do as a matter of course with the usual coarse soap made of tallow and lye.
“Right,” I muttered. “Well, we’ll see, won’t we?” and lathered the cloth for washing.
As I was arranging my hair in the glass a half-hour later, I heard the sounds below of someone arriving. Several someones, in fact, from the sounds of it. I came down the stairs to find a small mob of children in residence, streaming in and out of the kitchen and front parlor, with here and there a strange adult visible in the midst of them, who stared curiously at me as I came down the stairs.
Entering the parlor, I found the camp bed put away and Jamie, shaved and in a fresh nightshirt, neatly propped up on the sofa under a quilt with his left arm in a sling, surrounded by four or five children. These were shepherded by Janet, Young Ian, and a smiling young man who was a Fraser of sorts by the shape of his nose, but otherwise bore only the faintest resemblances to the tiny boy I had seen last at Lallybroch twenty years before.
“There she is!” Jamie exclaimed with pleasure at my appearance, and the entire roomful of people turned to look at me, with expressions ranging from pleasant greeting to gape-mouthed awe.
“You’ll remember Young Jamie?” the elder Jamie said, nodding to the tall, broad-shouldered young man with curly black hair and a squirming bundle in his arms.
“I remember the curls,” I said, smiling. “The rest has changed a bit.”
Young Jamie grinned down at me. “I remember ye well, Auntie,” he said, in a deep-brown voice like well-aged ale. “Ye held me on your knee and played Ten Wee Piggies wi’ my toes.”
“I can’t possibly have,” I said, looking up at him in some dismay. While it seemed to be true that people really didn’t change markedly in appearance between their twenties and their forties, they most assuredly did so between four and twenty-four.
“Perhaps ye can have a go wi’ wee Benjamin here,” Young Jamie suggested with a smile. “Maybe the knack of it will come back to ye.” He bent and carefully laid his bundle in my arms.
A very round face looked up at me with that air of befuddlement so common to new babies. Benjamin appeared mildly confused at having me suddenly exchanged for his father, but didn’t object. Instead, he opened his small pink mouth very wide, inserted his fist and began to gnaw on it in a thoughtful manner.
A small blond boy in homespun breeks leaned on Jamie’s knee, staring up at me in wonder. “Who’s that, Nunkie?” he asked in a loud whisper.
“That’s your great-auntie Claire,” Jamie said gravely. “Ye’ll have heard about her, I expect?”
“Oh, aye,” the little boy said, nodding madly. “Is she as old as Grannie?”
“Even older,” Jamie said, nodding back solemnly. The lad gawked up at me for a moment, then turned back to Jamie, face screwed up in scorn.
“Get on wi’ ye, Nunkie! She doesna look anything like as old as Grannie! Why, there’s scarce a bit o’ silver in her hair!”
“Thank you, child,” I said, beaming at him.
“Are ye sure that’s our great-auntie Claire?” the boy went on, looking doubtfully at me. “Mam says Great-Auntie Claire was maybe a witch, but this lady doesna look much like it. She hasna got a single wart on her nose that I can see!”
“Thanks,” I said again, a little more dryly. “And what’s your name?”
He turned suddenly shy at being thus directly addressed, and buried his head in Jamie’s sleeve, refusing to speak.
“This is Angus Walter Edwin Murray Carmichael,” Jamie answered for him, ruffling the silky blond hair. “Maggie’s eldest son, and most commonly known as Wally.”
“We call him Snot-rag,” a small red-haired girl standing by my knee informed me. “’Cause his neb is always clotted wi’ gook.”
Angus Walter jerked his face out of his uncle’s shirt and glared at his female relation, his features beet-red with fury.
“Is not!” he shouted. “Take it back!” Not waiting to see whether she would or not, he flung himself at her, fists clenched, but was jerked off his feet by his great-uncle’s hand, attached to his collar.
“Ye dinna hit girls,” Jamie informed him firmly. “It’s not manly.”
“But she said I was snotty!” Angus Walter wailed. “I must hit her!”
“And it’s no verra civil to pass remarks about someone’s personal appearance, Mistress Abigail,” Jamie said severely to the little girl. “Ye should apologize to your cousin.”
“Well, but he is…” Abigail persisted, but then caught Jamie’s stern eyes and dropped her own, flushing scarlet. “Sorry, Wally,” she murmured.
Wally seemed at first indisposed to consider this adequate compensation for the insult he had suffered, but was at last prevailed upon to cease trying to hit his cousin by his uncle promising him a story.
“Tell the one about the kelpie and the horseman!” my red-haired acquaintance exclaimed, pushing forward to be in on it.
“No, the one about the Devil’s chess game!” chimed in one of the other children. Jamie seemed to be a sort of magnet for them; two boys were plucking at his coverlet, while a tiny brown-haired girl had climbed up onto the sofa back by his head, and begun intently plaiting strands of his hair.
“Pretty, Nunkie,” she murmured, taking no part in the hail of suggestions.
“It’s Wally’s story,” Jamie said firmly, quelling the incipient riot with a gesture. “He can choose as he likes.” He drew a clean handkerchief out from under the pillow and held it to Wally’s nose, which was in fact rather unsightly.
“Blow,” he said in an undertone, and then, louder, “and then tell me which you’ll have, Wally.”
Wally snuffled obligingly, then said, “St. Bride and the geese, please, Nunkie.”
Jamie’s eyes sought me, resting on my face with a thoughtful expression.
“All right,” he said, after a pause. “Well, then. Ye’ll ken that the greylag mate for life? If ye kill a grown goose, hunting, ye must always wait, for the mate will come to mourn. Then ye must try to kill the second, too, for otherwise it will grieve itself to death, calling through the skies for the lost one.”
Little Benjamin shifted in his wrappings, squirming in my arms. Jamie smiled and shifted his attention back to Wally, hanging open-mouthed on his great-uncle’s knee.
“So,” he said, “it was a time, more hundreds of years past than you could ken or dream of, that Bride first set foot on the stone of the Highlands, along with Michael the Blessed…”
Benjamin let out a small squawk at this point, and began to rootle at the front of my dress. Young Jamie and his siblings seemed to have disappeared, and after a moment’s patting and joggling had proved vain, I left the room in search of Benjamin’s mother, leaving the story in progress behind me.
I found the lady in question in the kitchen, embedded in a large company of girls and women, and after turning Benjamin over to her, spent some time in introductions, greeting, and the sort of ritual by which women appraise each other, openly and otherwise.
The women were all very friendly; evidently everyone knew or had been told who I was, for while they introduced me from one to another, there was no apparent surprise at the return of Jamie’s first wife—either from the dead or from France, depending on what they’d been told.
Still, there were very odd undercurrents passing through the gathering. They scrupulously avoided asking me questions; in another place, this might be mere politeness, but not in the Highlands, where any stranger’s life history was customarily extracted in the course of a casual visit.
And while they treated me with great courtesy and kindness, there were small looks from the corner of the eye, the passing of glances exchanged behind my back, and casual remarks made quietly in Gaelic.