“Especially when they’re asleep,” I said, looking down again at the little white stone. “You can always see the baby then.”
“Ah.” Mother nodded, satisfied. “I thought you had had more children; you have the look, somehow.”
“One more.” I glanced at her. “And how do you know so much about mothers and children?”
The small black eyes shone shrewdly under heavy brow ridges whose sparse hairs had gone quite white.
“The old require very little sleep,” she said, with a deprecatory shrug. “I walk the wards at night, sometimes. The patients talk to me.”
She had shrunk somewhat with advancing age, and the wide shoulders were slightly bowed, thin as a wire hanger beneath the black serge of her habit. Even so, she was still taller than I, and towered over most of the nuns, more scarecrow-like, but imposing as ever. She carried a walking stick but strode erect, firm of tread and with the same piercing eye, using the stick more frequently to prod idlers or direct underlings than to lean on.
I blew my nose and we turned back along the path to the convent. As we walked slowly back, I noticed other small stones set here and there among the larger ones.
“Are those all children?” I asked, a little surprised.
“The children of the nuns,” she said matter-of-factly. I gaped at her in astonishment, and she shrugged, elegant and wry as always.
“It happens,” she said. She walked a few steps farther, then added, “Not often, of course.” She gestured with her stick around the confines of the cemetery.
“This place is reserved for the sisters, a few benefactors of the Hôpital—and those they love.”
“The sisters or the benefactors?”
“The sisters. Here, you lump!”
Mother Hildegarde paused in her progress, spotting an orderly leaning idly against the church wall, smoking a pipe. As she berated him in the elegantly vicious Court French of her girlhood, I stood back, looking around the tiny cemetery.
Against the far wall, but still in consecrated ground, was a row of small stone tablets, each with a single name, “Bouton.” Below each name was a Roman numeral, I through XV. Mother Hildegarde’s beloved dogs. I glanced at her current companion, the sixteenth holder of that name. This one was coal-black, and curly as a Persian lamb. He sat bolt upright at her feet, round eyes fixed on the delinquent orderly, a silent echo of Mother Hildegarde’s outspoken disapproval.
The sisters, and those they love.
Mother Hildegarde came back, her fierce expression altering at once to the smile that transformed her strong gargoyle features into beauty.
“I am so pleased that you have come again, ma chère,” she said. “Come inside; I shall find things that may be useful to you on your journey.” Tucking the stick in the crook of her arm, she instead took my forearm for support, grasping it with a warm bony hand whose skin had grown paperthin. I had the odd feeling that it was not I who supported her, but the other way around.
As we turned into the small yew alley that led to the entrance to the Hôpital, I glanced up at her.
“I hope you won’t think me rude, Mother,” I said hesitantly, “but there is one question I wanted to ask you…”
“Eighty-three,” she replied promptly. She grinned broadly, showing her long yellow horse’s teeth. “Everyone wants to know,” she said complacently. She looked back over her shoulder toward the tiny graveyard, and lifted one shoulder in a dismissive Gallic shrug.
“Not yet,” she said confidently. “Le Bon Dieu knows how much work there is still to do.”
WE SET SAIL
It was a cold, gray day—there is no other kind in Scotland in December—when the Artemis touched at Cape Wrath, on the northwest coast.
I peered out of the tavern window into a solid gray murk that hid the cliffs along the shore. The place was depressingly reminiscent of the landscape near the silkies’ isle, with the smell of dead seaweed strong in the air, and the crashing of waves so loud as to inhibit conversation, even inside the small pothouse by the wharf. Young Ian had been taken nearly a month before. Now it was past Christmas, and here we were, still in Scotland, no more than a few miles from the seals’ island.
Jamie was striding up and down the dock outside, in spite of the cold rain, too restless to stay indoors by the fire. The sea journey from France back to Scotland had been no better for him than the first Channel crossing, and I knew the prospect of two or three months aboard the Artemis filled him with dread. At the same time, his impatience to be in pursuit of the kidnappers was so acute that any delay filled him with frustration. More than once I had awakened in the middle of the night to find him gone, walking the streets of Le Havre alone.
Ironically, this final delay was of his own making. We had touched at Cape Wrath to retrieve Fergus, and with him, the small group of smugglers whom Jamie had sent him to fetch, before leaving ourselves for Le Havre.
“There’s no telling what we shall find in the Indies, Sassenach,” Jamie had explained to me. “I dinna mean to go up against a shipload of pirates singlehanded, nor yet to fight wi’ men I dinna ken alongside me.” The smugglers were all men of the shore, accustomed to boats and the ocean, if not to ships; they would be hired on as part of the Artemis’s crew, shorthanded in consequence of the late season in which we sailed.
Cape Wrath was a small port, with little traffic at this time of year. Besides the Artemis, only a few fishing boats and a ketch were tied up at the wooden wharf. There was a small pothouse, though, in which the crew of the Artemis cheerfully passed their time while waiting, the men who would not fit inside the house crouching under the eaves, swilling pots of ale passed through the windows by their comrades indoors. Jamie walked on the shore, coming in only for meals, when he would sit before the fire, the wisps of steam rising from his soggy garments symptomatic of his increasing aggravation of soul.
Fergus was late. No one seemed to mind the wait but Jamie and Jared’s captain. Captain Raines, a small, plump, elderly man, spent most of his time on the deck of his ship, keeping one weather eye on the overcast sky, and the other on his barometer.
“That’s verra strong-smelling stuff, Sassenach,” Jamie observed, during one of his brief visits to the taproom. “What is it?”
“Fresh ginger,” I answered, holding up the remains of the root I was grating. “It’s the thing most of my herbals say is best for nausea.”
“Oh, aye?” He picked up the bowl, sniffed at the contents, and sneezed explosively, to the vast amusement of the onlookers. I snatched back the bowl before he could spill it.
“You don’t take it like snuff,” I said. “You drink it in tea. And I hope to heaven it works, because if it doesn’t, we’ll be scooping you out of the bilges, if bilges are what I think they are.”
“Oh, not to worry, missus,” one of the older hands assured me, overhearing. “Lots o’ green hands feel a bit queerlike the first day or two. But usually they comes round soon enough; by the third day, they’ve got used to the pitch and roll, and they’re up in the rigging, happy as larks.”
I glanced at Jamie, who was markedly unlarklike at the moment. Still, this comment seemed to give him some hope, for he brightened a bit, and waved to the harassed servingmaid for a glass of ale.
“It may be so,” he said. “Jared said the same; that seasickness doesna generally last more than a few days, provided the seas aren’t too heavy.” He took a small sip of his ale, and then, with growing confidence, a deeper swallow. “I can stand three days of it, I suppose.”
Late in the afternoon of the second day, six men appeared, winding their way along the stony shore on shaggy Highland ponies.
“There’s Raeburn in the lead,” Jamie said, shading his eyes and squinting to distinguish the identities of the six small dots. “Kennedy after him, then Innes—he’s missing the left arm, see?—and Meldrum, and that’ll be MacLeod with him, they always ride together like that. Is the last man Gordon, then, or Fergus?”
“It must be Gordon,” I said, peering over his shoulder at the approaching men, “because it’s much too fat to be Fergus.”
“Where the devil is Fergus, then?” Jamie asked Raeburn, once the smugglers had been greeted, introduced to their new shipmates, and sat down to a hot supper and a cheerful glass.
Raeburn bobbed his head in response, hastily swallowing the remains of his pasty.
“Weel, he said to me as how he’d some business to see to, and would I see to the hiring of the horses, and speak to Meldrum and MacLeod about coming, for they were out wi’ their own boat at the time, and not expected back for a day or twa more, and…”
“What business?” Jamie said sharply, but got no more than a shrug in reply. Jamie muttered something under his breath in Gaelic, but returned to his own supper without further comment.
The crew being now complete—save Fergus—preparations began in the morning for getting under way. The deck was a scene of organized confusion, with bodies darting to and fro, popping up through hatchways, and dropping suddenly out of the rigging like dead flies. Jamie stood near the wheel, keeping out of the way, but lending a hand whenever a matter requiring muscle rather than skill arose. For the most part, though, he simply stood, eyes fixed on the road along the shore.
“We shall have to sail by midafternoon, or miss the tide.” Captain Raines spoke kindly, but firmly. “We’ll have surly weather in twenty-four hours; the glass is falling, and I feel it in my neck.” The Captain tenderly massaged the part in question, and nodded at the sky, which had gone from pewter to lead-gray since early morning. “I’ll not set sail in a storm if I can help it, and if we mean to make the Indies as soon as possible—”
“Aye, I understand, Captain,” Jamie interrupted him. “Of course; ye must do as seems best.” He stood back to let a bustling seaman go past, and the Captain disappeared, issuing orders as he went.
As the day wore on, Jamie seemed composed as usual, but I noticed that the stiff fingers fluttered against his thigh more and more often, the only outward sign of worry. And worried he was. Fergus had been with him since the day twenty years before, when Jamie had found him in a Paris brothel, and hired him to steal Charles Stuart’s letters.
More than that; Fergus had lived at Lallybroch since before Young Ian was born. The boy had been a younger brother to Fergus, and Jamie the closest thing to a father that Fergus had ever known. I could not imagine any business so urgent that it would have kept him from Jamie’s side. Neither could Jamie, and his fingers beat a silent tattoo on the wood of the rail.
Then it was time, and Jamie turned reluctantly away, tearing his eyes from the empty shore. The hatches were battened, the lines coiled, and several seamen leapt ashore to cast free the mooring hawsers; there were six of them, each a rope as thick around as my wrist.
I put a hand on Jamie’s arm in silent sympathy.
“You’d better come down below,” I said. “I’ve got a spirit lamp. I’ll brew you some hot ginger tea, and then you—”