Voyager

Author: P Hana

Page 117

   

Jamie and Fergus had similar berths. Jamie was lying on his side, wedged into one of these like a snail into its shell; one of which beasts he strongly resembled at the moment, being a pale and viscid gray in color, with streaks of green and yellow that contrasted nastily with his red hair. He opened one eye when he heard me come in, regarded me dimly for a moment, and closed it again.

“Not so good, hm?” I said sympathetically.

The eye opened again, and he seemed to be preparing to say something. He opened his mouth, changed his mind, and closed it again.

“No,” he said, and shut the eye once more.

I tentatively smoothed his hair, but he seemed too sunk in misery to notice.

“Captain Raines says it will likely be calmer by tomorrow,” I offered. The sea wasn’t terribly rough as it was, but there was a noticeable rise and fall.

“It doesna matter,” he said, not opening his eyes. “I shall be dead by then—or at least I hope so.”

“Afraid not,” I said, shaking my head. “Nobody dies of seasickness; though I must say it seems a wonder that they don’t, looking at you.”

“Not that.” He opened his eyes, and struggled up on one elbow, an effort that left him clammy with sweat and white to the lips.

“Claire. Be careful. I should have told ye before—but I didna want to worry ye, and I thought—” His face changed. Familiar as I was with expressions of bodily infirmity, I had the basin there just in time.

“Oh, God.” He lay limp and exhausted, pale as the sheet.

“What should you have told me?” I asked, wrinkling my nose as I put the basin on the floor near the door. “Whatever it was, you should have told me before we sailed, but it’s too late to think of that.”

“I didna think it would be so bad,” he murmured.

“You never do,” I said, rather tartly. “What did you want to tell me, though?”

“Ask Fergus,” he said. “Say I said he must tell ye. And tell him Innes is all right.”

“What are you talking about?” I was mildly alarmed; delirium wasn’t a common effect of seasickness.

His eyes opened, and fixed on mine with great effort. Beads of sweat stood out on his brow and upper lip.

“Innes,” he said. “He canna be the one. He doesna mean to kill me.”

A small shiver ran up my spine.

“Are you quite all right, Jamie?” I asked. I bent and wiped his face, and he gave me the ghost of an exhausted smile. He had no fever, and his eyes were clear.

“Who?” I said carefully, with a sudden feeling that there were eyes fixed on my back. “Who does mean to kill you?”

“I don’t know.” A passing spasm contorted his features, but he clamped his lips tight, and managed to subdue it.

“Ask Fergus,” he whispered, when he could talk again. “In private. He’ll tell ye.”

I felt exceedingly helpless. I had no notion what he was talking about, but if there was any danger, I wasn’t about to leave him alone.

“I’ll wait until he comes down,” I said.

One hand was curled near his nose. It straightened slowly and slid under the pillow, coming out with his dirk, which he clasped to his chest.

“I shall be all right,” he said. “Go on, then, Sassenach. I shouldna think they’d try anything in daylight. If at all.”

I didn’t find this reassuring in the slightest, but there seemed nothing else to do. He lay quite still, the dirk held to his chest like a stone tomb-figure.

“Go,” he murmured again, his lips barely moving.

Just outside the cabin door, something stirred in the shadows at the end of the passage. Peering sharply, I made out the crouched silk shape of Mr. Willoughby, chin resting on his knees. He spread his knees apart, and bowed his head politely between them.

“Not worry, honorable First Wife,” he assured me in a sibilant whisper. “I watch.”

“Good,” I said, “keep doing it.” And went, in considerable distress of mind, to find Fergus.

Fergus, found with Marsali on the after deck, peering into the ship’s wake at several large white birds, was somewhat more reassuring.

“We are not sure that anyone intends actually to kill milord,” he explained. “The casks in the warehouse might have been an accident—I have seen such things happen more than once—and likewise the fire in the shed, but—”

“Wait one minute, young Fergus,” I said, gripping him by the sleeve. “What casks, and what fire?”

“Oh,” he said, looking surprised. “Milord did not tell you?”

“Milord is sick as a dog, and incapable of telling me anything more than that I should ask you.”

Fergus shook his head, clicking his tongue in a censorious French way.

“He never thinks he will be so ill,” he said. “He always is, and yet every time he must set foot on a ship, he insists that it is only a matter of will; his mind will be master, and he will not allow his stomach to be dictating his actions. Then within ten feet of the dock, he has turned green.”

“He never told me that,” I said, amused at this description. “Stubborn little fool.”

Marsali had been hanging back behind Fergus with an air of haughty reserve, pretending that I wasn’t there. At this unexpected description of Jamie, though, she was surprised into a brief snort of laughter. She caught my eye and turned hastily away, cheeks flaming, to stare out to sea.

Fergus smiled and shrugged. “You know what he is like, milady,” he said, with tolerant affection. “He could be dying, and one would never know.”

“You’d know if you went down and looked at him now,” I said tartly. At the same time, I was conscious of surprise, accompanied by a faint feeling of warmth in the pit of my stomach. Fergus had been with Jamie almost daily for twenty years, and still Jamie would not admit to him the weakness that he would readily let me see. Were he dying, I would know about it, all right.

“Men,” I said, shaking my head.

“Milady?”

“Never mind,” I said. “You were telling me about casks and fires.”

“Oh, indeed, yes.” Fergus brushed back his thick shock of black hair with his hook. “It was the day before I met you again, milady, at Madame Jeanne’s.”

The day I had returned to Edinburgh, no more than a few hours before I had found Jamie at the printshop. He had been at the Burntisland docks with Fergus and a gang of six men during the night, taking advantage of the late dawn of winter to retrieve several casks of unbonded Madeira, smuggled in among a shipment of innocent flour.

“Madeira does not soak through the wood so quickly as some other wines do,” Fergus explained. “You cannot bring in brandy under the noses of the Customs like that, for the dogs will smell it at once, even if their masters do not. But not Madeira, provided it has been freshly casked.”

“Dogs?”

“Some of the Customs inspectors have dogs, milady, trained to smell out such contraband as tobacco and brandy.” He waved away the interruption, squinting his eyes against the brisk sea wind.

“We had removed the Madeira safely, and brought it to the warehouse—one of those belonging apparently to Lord Dundas, but in fact it belongs jointly to milord and Madame Jeanne.”

“Indeed,” I said, again with that minor dip of the stomach I had felt when Jamie opened the door of the brothel on Queen Street. “Partners, are they?”

“Well, of a sort.” Fergus sounded regretful. “Milord has only a five percent share, in return for his finding the place, and making the arrangements. Printing as an occupation is much less profitable than keeping a hôtel de joie.” Marsali didn’t look round, but I thought her shoulders stiffened further.

“I daresay,” I said. Edinburgh and Madame Jeanne were a long way behind us, after all. “Get on with the story. Someone may cut Jamie’s throat before I find out why.”

“Of course, milady.” Fergus bobbed his head apologetically.

The contraband had been safely hidden, awaiting disguise and sale, and the smugglers had paused to refresh themselves with a drink in lieu of breakfast, before making their way home in the brightening dawn. Two of the men had asked for their shares at once, needing the money to pay gaming debts and buy food for their families. Jamie agreeing to this, he had gone across to the warehouse office, where some gold was kept.

As the men relaxed over their whisky in a corner of the warehouse, their joking and laughter was interrupted by a sudden vibration that shook the floor beneath their feet.

“Come-down!” shouted MacLeod, an experienced warehouseman, and the men had dived for cover, even before they had seen the great rack of hogsheads near the office quiver and rumble, one two-ton cask rolling down the stack with ponderous grace, to smash in an aromatic lake of ale, followed within seconds by a cascade of its monstrous fellows.

“Milord was crossing in front of the rank,” Fergus said, shaking his head. “It was only by the grace of the Blessed Virgin herself that he was not crushed.” A bounding cask had missed him by inches, in fact, and he had escaped another only by diving headfirst out of its way and under an empty wine-rack that had deflected its course.

“As I say, such things happen often,” Fergus said, shrugging. “A dozen men are killed each year in such accidents, in the warehouses near Edinburgh alone. But with the other things…”

The week before the incident of the casks, a small shed full of packing straw had burst into flames while Jamie was working in it. A lantern placed between him and the door had apparently fallen over, setting the straw alight and trapping Jamie in the windowless shed, behind a sudden wall of flame.

“The shed was fortunately of a most flimsy construction, and the boards half-rotted. It went up like matchwood, but milord was able to kick a hole in the back wall and crawl out, with no injury. We thought at first that the lantern had merely fallen of its own accord, and were most grateful for his escape. It was only later that milord told me he thought that he had heard a noise—perhaps a shot, perhaps only the cracking noises an old warehouse makes as its boards settle—and when he turned to see, found the flames shooting up before him.”

Fergus sighed. He looked rather tired, and I wondered whether perhaps he had stayed awake to stand watch over Jamie during the night.

“So,” he said, shrugging once more. “We do not know. Such incidents may have been no more than accident—they may not. But taking such occurrences together with what happened at Arbroath—”

“You may have a traitor among the smugglers,” I said.

“Just so, milady.” Fergus scratched his head. “But what is more disturbing to milord is the man whom the Chinaman shot at Madame Jeanne’s.”

“Because you think he was a Customs agent, who’d tracked Jamie from the docks to the brothel? Jamie said he couldn’t be, because he had no warrant.”

“Not proof,” Fergus noted. “But worse, the booklet he had in his pocket.”

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