Voyager

Author: P Hana

Page 17

   

The paper rattled in my hand, and I set it down, very carefully, on the desk.

“Unlikely, huh?” Brianna said, standing on tiptoe to see over Roger’s shoulder. “Ha! He did make it back, we know he did!”

“We think he did,” Roger corrected, but it was only scholarly caution; his grin was as broad as Brianna’s.

“Will ye be havin’ tea or cocoa to your elevenses?” Fiona’s curly dark head poked through the study doorway, interrupting the excitement. “There’s fresh ginger-nut biscuits, just baked.” The scent of warm ginger came into the study with her, wafting enticingly from her apron.

“Tea, please,” said Roger, just as Brianna said, “Oh, cocoa sounds great!” Fiona, wearing a smug expression, pushed in the tea cart, sporting both tea cozy and pot of cocoa, as well as a plate of fresh ginger-nut biscuits.

I accepted a cup of tea myself, and sat down in the wing chair with the pages of Melton’s journal. The flowing eighteenth-century handwriting was surprisingly clear, in spite of the archaic spelling, and within minutes, I was in the confines of Leanach farmhouse, imagining the sound of buzzing flies, the stir of close-packed bodies, and the harsh smell of blood soaking into the packed-dirt floor.

“…in satisfaction of my brother’s debt of honor, I could not do otherwise than to spare Fraser’s life. I therefore omitted his name from the list of traitors executed at the farmhouse, and have made arrangement for his transport to his own estate. I cannot feel myself either altogether merciful toward Fraser in the taking of this action, nor yet altogether culpable with respect to my service toward the Duke, as Fraser’s situation, with a great wound in his leg festering and pustulent, makes it unlikely that he will survive the journey to his home. Still, honor prevents my acting otherwise, and I will confess that my spirit was lightened to see the man removed, still living, from the field, as I turned my own attentions to the melancholy task of disposing of the bodies of his comrades. So much killing as I have seen these last two days oppresses me,” the entry ended simply.

I laid the pages down on my knee, swallowing heavily. “A great wound…festering and pustulent…” I knew, as Roger and Brianna could not, just how serious such a wound would have been, with no antibiotics, nothing in the way of proper medical treatment; not even the crude herbal poultices available to a Highland charmer at the time. How long would it have taken, jolting from Culloden to Broch Tuarach in a wagon? Two days? Three? How could he have lived, in such a state, and neglected for so long?

“He did, though.” Brianna’s voice broke in upon my thoughts, answering what seemed to be a similar thought expressed by Roger. She spoke with simple assurance, as though she had seen all the events described in Melton’s journal, and were sure of their outcome. “He did get back. He was the Dunbonnet, I know it.”

“The Dunbonnet?” Fiona, tut-tutting over my cold cup of undrunk tea, looked over her shoulder in surprise. “Heard of the Dunbonnet, have ye?”

“Have you?” Roger looked at the young housekeeper in astonishment.

She nodded, casually dumping my tea into the aspidistra that stood by the hearth and refilling my cup with fresh steaming brew.

“Oh, aye. My grannie tellt me that tale, often and often.”

“Tell us!” Brianna leaned forward, intent, her cocoa cupped between her palms. “Please, Fiona! What’s the story?”

Fiona seemed mildly surprised to find herself suddenly the center of so much attention, but shrugged good-naturedly.

“Och, it’s just the story of one o’ the followers o’ the Bonnie Prince. When there was the great defeat at Culloden, and sae many were killed, a few escaped. Why, one man fled the field and swam the river to get away, but the Redcoats were after him, nonetheless. He came to a kirk along his way, and a service going on inside, and he dashing in, prayed mercy from the minister. The minister and the people took pity on him, and he put on the minister’s robe, so when the Redcoats burst in moments later, there he was, standing at the pulpit, preachin’ the sermon, and the water from his beard and clothes puddled up about his feet. The Redcoats thought they were mistaken, and went on down the road, and so he escaped—and everyone in the kirk said ’twas the best sermon they ever heard!” Fiona laughed heartily, while Brianna frowned, and Roger looked puzzled.

“That was the Dunbonnet?” he said. “But I thought—”

“Och, no!” she assured him. “That was no the Dunbonnet—only the Dunbonnet was another o’ the men who got away from Culloden. He came back to his own estate, but because the Sassenachs were hunting men all across the Highlands, he lay hidden there in a cave for seven years.”

Hearing this, Brianna slumped back in her chair with a sigh of relief. “And his tenants called him the Dunbonnet so as not to speak his name and betray him,” she murmured.

“Ye ken the story?” Fiona asked, astonished. “Aye, that’s right.”

“And did your grannie say what happened to him after that?” Roger prompted.

“Oh, aye!” Fiona’s eyes were round as butterscotch drops. “That’s the best part o’ the story. See, there was a great famine after Culloden; folk were starvin’ in the glens, turned out of their houses in winter, the men shot and the cots set afire. The Dunbonnet’s tenants managed better than most, but even so, there came a day when the food ran out, and their bellies garbeled from dawn ’til dark—no game in the forest, nay grain in the field, and the weans dyin’ in their mothers’ arms for lack o’ milk to feed them.”

A cold chill swept over me at her words. I saw the faces of the Lallybroch inhabitants—the people I had known and loved—pinched with cold and starvation. Not only horror filled me; there was guilt, too. I had been safe, warm, and well-fed, instead of sharing their fate—because I had done as Jamie wanted, and left them. I looked at Brianna, smooth red head bent in absorption, and the tight feeling in my chest eased a bit. She too had been safe for these past years, warm, well-fed, and loved—because I had done as Jamie wanted.

“So he made a bold plan, the Dunbonnet did,” Fiona was continuing. Her round face was alight with the drama of her tale. “He arranged that one of his tenants should go to the English, and offer to betray him. There was a good price on his head, for he’d been a great warrior for the Prince. The tenant would take the gold o’ the reward—to use for the folk on the estate, o’ course—and tell the English where the Dunbonnet might be taken.”

My hand clenched so convulsively at this that the delicate handle of my teacup snapped clean off.

“Taken?” I croaked, my voice hoarse with shock. “Did they hang him?”

Fiona blinked at me in surprise. “Why, no,” she said. “They wanted to, my grannie said, and took him to trial for treason, but in the end, they shut him up in a prison instead—but the gold went to his tenants, and so they lived through the famine,” she ended cheerfully, obviously regarding this as the happy ending.

“Jesus Christ,” Roger breathed. He set his cup down carefully, and sat staring into space, transfixed. “Prison.”

“You sound like that’s good,” Brianna protested. The corners of her mouth were tight with distress, and her eyes slightly shiny.

“It is,” Roger said, not noticing her distress. “There weren’t that many prisons where the English imprisoned Jacobite traitors, and they all kept official records. Don’t you see?” he demanded, looking from Fiona’s bewilderment to Brianna’s scowl, then settling on me in hope of finding understanding. “If he went to prison, I can find him.” He turned then, to look up at the towering shelves of books that lined three walls of the study, holding the late Reverend Wakefield’s collection of Jacobite arcana.

“He’s in there,” Roger said softly. “On a prison roll. In a document—real evidence! Don’t you see?” he demanded again, turning back to me. “Going to prison made him a part of written history again! And somewhere in there, we’ll find him!”

“And what happened to him then,” Brianna breathed. “When he was released.”

Roger’s lips pressed tight together, to cut off the alternative that sprang to his mind, as it had to mine—“or died.”

“Yes, that’s right,” he said, taking Brianna’s hand. His eyes met mine, deep green and unfathomable. “When he was released.”

A week later, Roger’s faith in documents remained unshaken. The same could not be said for the eighteenth-century table in the late Reverend Wakefield’s study, whose spindly legs wobbled and creaked alarmingly beneath their unaccustomed burden.

This table normally was asked to accommodate no more than a small lamp, and a collection of the Reverend’s smaller artifacts; it was pressed into service now only because every other horizontal surface in the study already overflowed with papers, journals, books, and bulging manila envelopes from antiquarian societies, universities, and research libraries across England, Scotland, and Ireland.

“If you set one more page on that thing, it’s going to collapse,” Claire observed, as Roger carelessly reached out, meaning to drop the folder he was carrying on the little inlaid table.

“Ah? Oh, right.” He switched direction in midair, looked vainly for another place to put the folder, and finally settled for placing it on the floor at his feet.

“I’ve just about finished with Wentworth,” Claire said. She indicated a precarious stack on the floor with her toe. “Have we got in the records for Berwick yet?”

“Yes, just this morning. Where did I put them, though?” Roger stared vaguely about the room, which strongly resembled the sacking of the library at Alexandria, just before the first torch was lit. He rubbed his forehead, trying to concentrate. After a week of spending ten-hour days thumbing the handwritten registers of British prisons, and the letters, journals, and diaries of their governors, searching for any official trace of Jamie Fraser, Roger was beginning to feel as though his eyes had been sandpapered.

“It was blue,” he said at last. “I distinctly remember it was blue. I got those from McAllister, the History Lecturer at Trinity at Cambridge, and Trinity College uses those big envelopes in pale blue, with the college’s coat of arms on the front. Maybe Fiona’s seen it. Fiona!”

He stepped to the study door and called down the hall toward the kitchen. Despite the lateness of the hour, the light was still on, and the heartening scent of cocoa and freshly baked almond cake lingered in the air. Fiona would never abandon her post while there was the faintest possibility that someone in her vicinity might require nourishment.

“Och, aye?” Fiona’s curly brown head poked out of the kitchen. “There’ll be cocoa ready directly,” she assured him. “I’m only waiting for the cake to be out of the oven.”

Roger smiled at her with deep affection. Fiona had not the slightest use herself for history—never read anything beyond My Weekly magazine—but she never questioned his activities, tranquilly dusting the heaps of books and papers daily, without bothering about their contents.

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