Author: P Hana

Page 103


But strangest of all was Jenny’s absence. She was the hearthfire of Lallybroch; I had never been in the house when it was not suffused with her presence, all the inhabitants in orbit about her like planets about the sun. I could think of nothing less like her than that she should leave her kitchen with such a mob of company in the house.

Her presence was as strong now as the perfume of the fresh pine boughs that lay in a large pile in the back pantry, their presence beginning to scent the house; but of Jenny herself, not a hair was to be seen.

She had avoided me since the night of my return with Young Ian—natural enough, I supposed, under the circumstances. Neither had I sought an interview with her. Both of us knew there was a reckoning to be made, but neither of us would seek it then.

It was warm and cozy in the kitchen—too warm. The intermingled scents of drying cloth, hot starch, wet diapers, sweating bodies, oatcake frying in lard, and bread baking were becoming a bit too heady, and when Katherine mentioned the need of a pitcher of cream for the scones, I seized the opportunity to escape, volunteering to fetch it down from the dairy shed.

After the press of heated bodies in the kitchen, the cold, damp air outside was so refreshing that I stood still for a minute, shaking the kitchen smells out of my petticoats and hair before making my way to the dairy shed. This shed was some distance away from the main house, convenient to the milking shed, which in turn was built to adjoin the two small paddocks in which sheep and goats were kept. Cattle were kept in the Highlands, but normally for beef, rather than milk, cow’s milk being thought suitable only for invalids.

To my surprise, as I came out of the dairy shed, I saw Fergus leaning on the paddock fence, staring moodily at the mass of milling wooly backs below. I had not expected to see him here, and wondered whether Jamie knew he had returned.

Jenny’s prized Merino sheep—imported, hand-fed and a great deal more spoilt than any of her grandchildren—spotted me as I passed, and rushed en masse for the side of their pen, blatting frenziedly in hope of tidbits. Fergus looked up, startled at the racket, then waved halfheartedly. He called something, but it was impossible to hear him over the uproar.

There was a large bin of frost-blasted cabbage heads near the pen; I pulled out a large, limp green head, and doled out leaves to a dozen or so pairs of eagerly grasping lips, in hopes of shutting them up.

The ram, a huge wooly creature named Hughie, with testicles that hung nearly to the ground like wool-covered footballs, shouldered his massive way into the front rank with a loud and autocratic Bahh! Fergus, who had reached my side by this time, picked up a whole cabbage and hurled it at Hughie with considerable force and fair accuracy.

“Tais-toi!” he said irritably.

Hughie shied and let out an astonished, high-pitched Beh! as the cabbage bounced off his padded back. Then, shaking himself back into some semblance of dignity, he trotted off, testes swinging with offended majesty. His flock, sheeplike, trailed after him, uttering a low chorus of discontented bahs in his wake.

Fergus glowered malevolently after them.

“Useless, noisy, smelly beasts,” he said. Rather ungratefully, I thought, given that the scarf and stockings he was wearing had almost certainly been woven from their wool.

“Nice to see you again, Fergus,” I said, ignoring his mood. “Does Jamie know you’re back yet?” I wondered just how much Fergus knew of recent events, if he had just arrived at Lallybroch.

“No,” he said, rather listlessly. “I suppose I should tell him I am here.” In spite of this, he made no move toward the house, but continued staring into the churned mud of the paddock. Something was obviously eating at him; I hoped nothing had gone wrong with his errand.

“Did you find Mr. Gage all right?” I asked.

He looked blank for a moment, then a spark of animation came back into his lean face.

“Oh, yes. Milord was right; I went with Gage to warn the other members of the Society, and then we went together to the tavern where they were to meet. Sure enough, there was a nest of Customs men there waiting, disguised. And may they be waiting as long as their fellow in the cask, ha ha!”

The gleam of savage amusement died out of his eyes then, and he sighed.

“We cannot expect to be paid for the pamphlets, of course. And even though the press was saved, God knows how long it may be until milord’s business is reestablished.”

He spoke with such mournfulness that I was surprised.

“You don’t help with the printing business, do you?” I asked.

He raised one shoulder and let it fall. “Not to say help, milady. But milord was kind enough to allow me to invest a part of my share of the profits from the brandy in the printing business. In time, I should have become a full partner.”

“I see,” I said sympathetically. “Do you need money? Perhaps I can—”

He shot me a glance of surprise, and then a smile that displayed his perfect, square white teeth.

“Thank you, milady, but no. I myself need very little, and I have enough.” He patted the side pocket of his coat, which jingled reassuringly.

He paused, frowning, and thrust both wrists deep into the pockets of his coat.

“Noo…” he said slowly. “It is only—well, the printing business is most respectable, milady.”

“I suppose so,” I said, slightly puzzled. He caught my tone and smiled, rather grimly.

“The difficulty, milady, is that while a smuggler may be in possession of an income more than sufficient for the support of a wife, smuggling as a sole profession is not likely to appeal to the parents of a respectable young lady.”

“Oho,” I said, everything becoming clear. “You want to get married? To a respectable young lady?”

He nodded, a little shyly.

“Yes, Madame. But her mother does not favor me.”

I couldn’t say I blamed the young lady’s mother, all things considered. While Fergus was possessed of dark good looks and a dashing manner that might well win a young girl’s heart, he lacked a few of the things that might appeal somewhat more to conservative Scottish parents, such as property, income, a left hand, and a last name.

Likewise, while smuggling, cattle-lifting, and other forms of practical communism had a long and illustrious history in the Highlands, the French did not. And no matter how long Fergus himself had lived at Lallybroch, he remained as French as Notre Dame. He would, like me, always be an outlander.

“If I were a partner in a profitable printing firm, you see, perhaps the good lady might be induced to consider my suit,” he explained. “But as it is…” He shook his head disconsolately.

I patted his arm sympathetically. “Don’t worry about it,” I said. “We’ll think of something. Does Jamie know about this girl? I’m sure he’d be willing to speak to her mother for you.”

To my surprise, he looked quite alarmed.

“Oh, no, milady! Please, say nothing to him—he has a great many things of more importance to think of just now.”

On the whole, I thought this was probably true, but I was surprised at his vehemence. Still, I agreed to say nothing to Jamie. My feet were growing chilly from standing in the frozen mud, and I suggested that we go inside.

“Perhaps a little later, milady,” he said. “For now, I believe I am not suitable company even for sheep.” With a heavy sigh, he turned and trudged off toward the dovecote, shoulders slumped.

To my surprise, Jenny was in the parlor with Jamie. She had been outside; her cheeks and the end of her long, straight nose were pink with the cold, and the scent of winter mist lingered in her clothes.

“I’ve sent Young Ian to saddle Donas,” she said. She frowned at her brother. “Can ye stand to walk to the barn, Jamie, or had he best bring the beast round for ye?”

Jamie stared up at her, one eyebrow raised.

“I can walk wherever it’s needful to go, but I’m no going anywhere just now.”

“Did I not tell ye he’d be coming?” Jenny said impatiently. “Amyas Kettrick stopped by here late last night, and said he’d just come from Kinwallis. Hobart’s meaning to come today, he said.” She glanced at the pretty enameled clock on the mantel. “If he left after breakfast, he’ll be here within the hour.”

Jamie frowned at his sister, tilting his head back against the sofa.

“I told ye, Jenny, I’m no afraid of Hobart MacKenzie,” he said shortly. “Damned if I’ll run from him!”

Jenny’s brows rose as she looked coldly at her brother.

“Oh, aye?” she said. “Ye weren’t afraid of Laoghaire, either, and look where that got ye!” She jerked her head at the sling on his arm.

Despite himself, Jamie’s mouth curled up on one side.

“Aye, well, it’s a point,” he said. “On the other hand, Jenny, ye ken guns are scarcer than hen’s teeth in the Highlands. I dinna think Hobart’s going to come and ask to borrow my own pistol to shoot me with.”

“I shouldna think he’d bother; he’ll just walk in and spit ye through the gizzard like the silly gander ye are!” she snapped.

Jamie laughed, and she glared at him. I seized the moment to interrupt.

“Who,” I inquired, “is Hobart MacKenzie, and why exactly does he want to spit you like a gander?”

Jamie turned his head to me, the light of amusement still in his eyes.

“Hobart is Laoghaire’s brother, Sassenach,” he explained. “As for spitting me or otherwise—”

“Laoghaire’s sent for him from Kinwallis, where he lives,” Jenny interrupted, “and told him about…all this.” A slight, impatient gesture encompassed me, Jamie, and the awkward situation in general.

“The notion being that Hobart’s meant to come round and expunge the slight upon his sister’s honor by expunging me,” Jamie explained. He seemed to find the idea entertaining. I wasn’t so sure about it, and neither was Jenny.

“You’re not worried about this Hobart?” I asked.

“Of course not,” he said, a little irritably. He turned to his sister. “For God’s sake, Jenny, ye ken Hobart MacKenzie! The man couldna stick a pig without cutting off his own foot!”

She looked him up and down, evidently gauging his ability to defend himself against an incompetent pigsticker, and reluctantly concluding that he might manage, even one-handed.

“Mmphm,” she said. “Well, and what if he comes for ye and ye kill him, aye? What then?”

“Then he’ll be dead, I expect,” Jamie said dryly.

“And ye’ll be hangit for murder,” she shot back, “or on the run, wi’ all the rest of Laoghaire’s kin after ye. Want to start a blood feud, do ye?”

Jamie narrowed his eyes at his sister, emphasizing the already marked resemblance between them.

“What I want,” he said, with exaggerated patience, “is my breakfast. D’ye mean to feed me, or d’ye mean to wait until I faint from hunger, and then hide me in the priest hole ’til Hobart leaves?”

Annoyance struggled with humor on Jenny’s fine-boned face as she glared at her brother. As usual with both Frasers, humor won out.