Voyager

Author: P Hana

Page 23

   

He rang the bell for his servant and padded to the window to see how the weather kept, wincing at the chill of the stone under his bare feet.

It was, not surprisingly, raining. In the courtyard below, the prisoners were already being formed up in work crews, wet to the skin. Shivering in his shirt, Grey pulled in his head and shut the window halfway; a nice compromise between death from suffocation and death from the ague.

It had been visions of revenge that kept him tossing in his bed as the window lightened and the rain pattered on the sill; thoughts of Fraser confined to a tiny cell of freezing stone, kept naked through the winter nights, fed on slops, stripped and flogged in the courtyard of the prison. All that arrogant power humbled, reduced to groveling misery, dependent solely on his word for a moment’s relief.

Yes, he thought all those things, imagined them in vivid detail, reveled in them. He heard Fraser beg for mercy, imagined himself disdaining, haughty. He thought these things, and the spiked object turned over in his guts, piercing him with self-disgust.

Whatever he might once have been to Grey, Fraser now was a beaten foe; a prisoner of war, and the charge of the Crown. He was Grey’s charge, in fact; a responsibility, and his welfare the duty of honor.

His servant had brought hot water for shaving. He splashed his cheeks, feeling the warmth soothe him, laying to rest the tormented fancies of the night. That was all they were, he realized—fancies, and the realization brought him a certain relief.

He might have met Fraser in battle and taken a real and savage pleasure in killing or maiming him. But the inescapable fact was that so long as Fraser was his prisoner, he could not in honor harm the man. By the time he had shaved and his servant had dressed him, he was recovered enough to find a certain grim humor in the situation.

His foolish behavior at Carryarrick had saved Fraser’s life at Culloden. Now, that debt discharged, and Fraser in his power, Fraser’s sheer helplessness as a prisoner made him completely safe. For whether foolish or wise, naive or experienced, all the Greys were men of honor.

Feeling somewhat better, he met his gaze in the looking glass, set his wig to rights, and went to eat breakfast before giving his first address to the prisoners.

“Will you have your supper served in the sitting room, sir, or in here?” MacKay’s head, uncombed as ever, poked into the office.

“Um?” Grey murmured, absorbed in the papers spread out on the desk. “Oh,” he said, looking up. “In here, if you please.” He waved vaguely at the corner of the huge desk and returned to his work, scarcely looking up when the tray with his food arrived sometime later.

Quarry had not been joking about the paperwork. The sheer quantity of food alone required endless orders and requisitions—all orders to be submitted in duplicate to London, if he pleased!—let alone the hundreds of other necessities required by the prisoners, the guards, and the men and women from the village who came in by the day to clean the barracks and work in the kitchens. He had done nothing all day but write and sign requisitions. He must find a clerk soon, or die of sheer ennui.

Two hundred lb. wheat flowr, he wrote, for prisoners’ use. Six hogsheads ale, for use of barracks. His normally elegant handwriting had quickly degenerated into a utilitarian scrawl, his stylish signature become a curt J. Grey.

He laid down his pen with a sigh and closed his eyes, massaging the ache between his brows. The sun had not bothered to show its face once since his arrival, and working all day in a smoky room by candlelight left his eyes burning like lumps of coal. His books had arrived the day before, but he had not even unpacked them, too exhausted by nightfall to do more than bathe his aching eyes in cold water and go to sleep.

He heard a small, stealthy sound, and sat up abruptly, his eyes popping open. A large brown rat sat on the corner of his desk, a morsel of plum cake held in its front paws. It didn’t move, but merely looked at him speculatively, whiskers twitching.

“Well, God damn my eyes!” Grey exclaimed in amazement. “Here, you bugger! That’s my supper!”

The rat nibbled pensively at the plum cake, bright beady eyes fixed on the Major.

“Get out of it!” Enraged, Grey snatched up the nearest object and let fly at the rat. The ink bottle exploded on the stone floor in a spray of black, and the startled rat leapt off the desk and fled precipitously, galloping between the legs of the even more startled MacKay, who appeared at the door to see what the noise was.

“Has the prison got a cat?” Grey demanded, dumping the contents of his supper tray into the waste can by his desk.

“Aye, sir, there’s cats in the storerooms,” MacKay offered, crawling backward on hands and knees to wipe up the small black footprints the rat had left in its precipitous flight through the ink puddle.

“Well, fetch one up here, if you please, MacKay,” Grey ordered. “At once.” He grunted at the memory of that obscenely naked tail draped nonchalantly over his plate. He had encountered rats often enough in the field, of course, but there was something about having his own personal supper molested before his eyes that seemed particularly infuriating.

He strode to the window and stood there, trying to clear his head with fresh air, as MacKay finished his mopping-up. Dusk was drawing down, filling the courtyard with purple shadows. The stones of the cell wing opposite looked even colder and more dreary than usual.

The turnkeys were coming through the rain from the kitchen wing; a procession of small carts laden with the prisoners’ food; huge pots of steaming oatmeal and baskets of bread, covered with cloths against the rain. At least the poor devils had hot food after their wet day’s work in the stone quarry.

A thought struck him as he turned from the window.

“Are there many rats in the cells?” he asked MacKay.

“Aye, sir, a great many,” the prisoner replied, with a final swipe to the threshold. “I’ll tell the cook to make ye up a fresh tray, shall I, sir?”

“If you please,” Grey said. “And then if you will, Mr. MacKay, please see that each cell is provided with its own cat.”

MacKay looked slightly dubious at this. Grey paused in the act of retrieving his scattered papers.

“Is there something wrong, MacKay?”

“No, sir,” MacKay replied slowly. “Only the wee brown beasties do keep down the cockchafers. And with respect, sir, I dinna think the men would care to have a cat takin’ all their rats.”

Grey stared at the man, feeling mildly queasy.

“The prisoners eat the rats?” he asked, with a vivid memory of sharp yellow teeth nibbling at his plum cake.

“Only when they’re lucky enough to catch one, sir,” MacKay said. “Perhaps the cats would be a help wi’ that, after all. Will that be all for tonight, sir?”

9

THE WANDERER

Grey’s resolve concerning James Fraser lasted for two weeks. Then the messenger arrived from the village of Ardsmuir, with news that changed everything.

“Does he still live?” he asked the man sharply. The messenger, one of the inhabitants of Ardsmuir village who worked for the prison, nodded.

“I saw him mysel’, sir, when they brought him in. He’s at the Lime Tree now, being cared for—but I didna think he looked as though care would be enough, sir, if ye take my meaning.” He raised one brow significantly.

“I take it,” Grey answered shortly. “Thank you, Mr.—”

“Allison, sir, Rufus Allison. Your servant, sir.” The man accepted the shilling offered him, bowed with his hat under his arm, and took his leave.

Grey sat at his desk, staring out at the leaden sky. The sun had scarcely shone for a day since his arrival. He tapped the end of the quill with which he had been writing on the desk, oblivious to the damage he was inflicting on the sharpened tip.

The mention of gold was enough to prick up any man’s ears, but especially his.

A man had been found this morning, wandering in the mist on the moor near the village. His clothes were soaked not only with the damp, but with seawater, and he was out of his mind with fever.

He had talked unceasingly since he was found, babbling for the most part, but his rescuers were unable to make much sense of his ravings. The man appeared to be Scottish, and yet he spoke in an incoherent mixture of French and Gaelic, with here and there the odd word of English thrown in. And one of those words had been “gold.”

The combination of Scots, gold, and the French tongue, mentioned in this area of the country, could bring only one thought to the mind of anyone who had fought through the last days of the Jacobite rising. The Frenchman’s Gold. The fortune in gold bullion that Louis of France had—according to rumor—sent secretly to the aid of his cousin, Charles Stuart. But sent far too late.

Some stories said that the French gold had been hidden by the Highland army during the last headlong retreat to the North, before the final disaster at Culloden. Others held that the gold had never reached Charles Stuart, but had been left for safekeeping in a cave near the place where it had come ashore on the northwestern coast.

Some said that the secret of the hiding place had been lost, its guardian killed at Culloden. Others said that the hiding place was still known, but a close-kept secret, held among the members of a single Highland family. Whatever the truth, the gold had never been found. Not yet.

French and Gaelic. Grey spoke passable French, the result of several years fighting abroad, but neither he nor any of his officers spoke the barbarous Gaelic, save a few words Sergeant Grissom had learned as a child from a Scottish nursemaid.

He could not trust a man from the village; not if there was anything to this tale. The Frenchman’s Gold! Beyond its value as treasure—which would belong to the Crown in any case—the gold had a considerable and personal value to John William Grey. The finding of that half-mythical hoard would be his passport out of Ardsmuir—back to London and civilization. The blackest disgrace would be instantly obscured by the dazzle of gold.

He bit the end of the blunted quill, feeling the cylinder crack between his teeth.

Damn. No, it couldn’t be a villager, nor one of his officers. A prisoner, then. Yes, he could use a prisoner without risk, for a prisoner would be unable to make use of the information for his own ends.

Damn again. All of the prisoners spoke Gaelic, many had some English as well—but only one spoke French besides. He is an educated man, Quarry’s voice echoed in his memory.

“Damn, damn, damn!” Grey muttered. It couldn’t be helped. Allison had said the wanderer was very ill; there was no time to look for alternatives. He spat out a shred of quill.

“Brame!” he shouted. The startled corporal poked his head in.

“Yes, sir?”

“Bring me a prisoner named James Fraser. At once.”

The Governor stood behind his desk, leaning on it as though the huge slab of oak were in fact the bulwark it looked. His hands were damp on the smooth wood, and the white stock of his uniform felt tight around his neck.

His heart leapt violently as the door opened. The Scot came in, his irons chinking slightly, and stood before the desk. The candles were all lit, and the office nearly as bright as day, though it was nearly full dark outside.

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