Author: P Hana

Page 27


Finally he stopped in front of Jamie.

“Mr. Fraser,” he said formally. “I will ask you once more—why did you escape from the prison?”

Jamie sighed. He wouldn’t get to stand by the fire much longer.

“I cannot tell you, Major.”

“Cannot or will not?” Grey asked sharply.

“It doesna seem a useful distinction, Major, as ye willna hear anything, either way.” He closed his eyes and waited, trying to soak up as much heat as possible before they took him away.

Grey found himself at a loss, both for words and action. Stubborn does not begin to describe it, Quarry had said. It didn’t.

He took a deep breath, wondering what to do. He found himself embarrassed by the petty cruelty of the guards’ revenge; the more so because it was just such an action he had first contemplated upon hearing that Fraser was his prisoner.

He would be perfectly within his rights now to order the man flogged, or put back in irons. Condemned to solitary confinement, put on short rations—he could in justice inflict any of a dozen different punishments. And if he did, the odds of his ever finding the Frenchman’s Gold became vanishingly small.

The gold did exist. Or at least there was a good probability that it did. Only a belief in that gold would have stirred Fraser to act as he had.

He eyed the man. Fraser’s eyes were closed, his lips set firmly. He had a wide, strong mouth, whose grim expression was somewhat belied by the sensitive lips, set soft and exposed in their curly nest of red beard.

Grey paused, trying to think of some way to break past the man’s wall of bland defiance. To use force would be worse than useless—and after the guards’ actions, he would be ashamed to order it, even had he the stomach for brutality.

The clock on the mantelpiece struck ten. It was late; there was no sound in the fortress, save the occasional footsteps of the soldier on sentry in the courtyard outside the window.

Clearly neither force nor threat would work in gaining the truth. Reluctantly, he realized that there was only one course open to him, if he still wished to pursue the gold. He must put aside his feelings about the man and take Quarry’s suggestion. He must pursue an acquaintance, in the course of which he might worm out of the man some clue that would lead him to the hidden treasure.

If it existed, he reminded himself, turning to his prisoner. He took a deep breath.

“Mr. Fraser,” he said formally, “will you do me the honor to take supper tomorrow in my quarters?”

He had the momentary satisfaction of having startled the Scottish bastard, at least. The blue eyes opened wide, and then Fraser regained the mastery of his face. He paused for a moment, and then bowed with a flourish, as though he wore a kilt and swinging plaid, and not damp prison rags.

“It will be my pleasure to attend ye, Major,” he said.

March 7, 1755

Fraser was delivered by the guard and left to wait in the sitting room, where a table was laid. When Grey came through the door from his bedroom a few moments later, he found his guest standing by the bookshelf, apparently absorbed in a copy of Nouvelle Héloïse.

“You are interested in French novels?” he blurted, not realizing until too late how incredulous the question sounded.

Fraser glanced up, startled, and snapped the book shut. Very deliberately, he returned it to its shelf.

“I can read, Major,” he said. He had shaved; a slight flush burned high on his cheekbones.

“I—yes, of course I did not mean—I merely—” Grey’s own cheeks were more flushed than Fraser’s. The fact was that he had subconsciously assumed that the other did not read, his evident education notwithstanding, merely because of his Highland accent and shabby dress.

While his coat might be shabby, Fraser’s manners were not. He ignored Grey’s flustered apology, and turned to the bookshelf.

“I have been telling the men the story, but it has been some time since I read it; I thought I would refresh my memory as to the sequence of the ending.”

“I see.” Just in time, Grey stopped himself from saying “They understand it?”

Fraser evidently read the unspoken question in his face, for he said dryly, “All Scottish children are taught their letters, Major. Still, we have a great tradition of storytelling in the Highlands.”

“Ah. Yes. I see.”

The entry of his servant with dinner saved him from further awkwardness, and the supper passed uneventfully, though there was little conversation, and that little, limited to the affairs of the prison.

The next time, he had had the chess table set up before the fire, and invited Fraser to join him in a game before the supper was served. There had been a brief flash of surprise from the slanted blue eyes, and then a nod of acquiescence.

That had been a small stroke of genius, Grey thought in retrospect. Relieved of the need for conversation or social courtesies, they had slowly become accustomed to each other as they sat over the inlaid board of ivory and ebony-wood, gauging each other silently by the movements of the chessmen.

When they had at length sat down to dine, they were no longer quite strangers, and the conversation, while still wary and formal, was at least true conversation, and not the awkward affair of starts and stops it had been before. They discussed matters of the prison, had a little conversation of books, and parted formally, but on good terms. Grey did not mention gold.

And so the weekly custom was established. Grey sought to put his guest at ease, in the hopes that Fraser might let drop some clue to the fate of the Frenchman’s Gold. It had not come so far, despite careful probing. Any hint of inquiry as to what had transpired during the three days of Fraser’s absence from Ardsmuir met with silence.

Over the mutton and boiled potatoes, he did his best to draw his odd guest into a discussion of France and its politics, by way of discovering whether there might exist any links between Fraser and a possible source of gold from the French Court.

Much to his surprise, he was informed that Fraser had in fact spent two years living in France, employed in the wine business, prior to the Stuart rebellion.

A certain cool humor in Fraser’s eyes indicated that the man was well aware of the motives behind this questioning. At the same time, he acquiesced gracefully enough in the conversation, though taking some care always to lead questions away from his personal life, and instead toward more general matters of art and society.

Grey had spent some time in Paris, and despite his attempts at probing Fraser’s French connections, found himself becoming interested in the conversation for its own sake.

“Tell me, Mr. Fraser, during your time in Paris, did you chance to encounter the dramatic works of Monsieur Voltaire?”

Fraser smiled. “Oh, aye, Major. In fact, I was privileged to entertain Monsieur Arouet—Voltaire being his nom de plume, aye?—at my table, on more than one occasion.”

“Really?” Grey cocked a brow in interest. “And is he as great a wit in person as with the pen?”

“I couldna really say,” Fraser replied, tidily forking up a slice of mutton. “He seldom said anything at all, let alone much sparkling with wit. He only sat hunched over in his chair, watching everyone, wi’ his eyes rolling about from one to another. I shouldna be at all surprised to hear that things said at my dinner table later appeared on the stage, though fortunately I never encountered a parody of myself in his work.” He closed his eyes in momentary concentration, chewing his mutton.

“Is the meat to your taste, Mr. Fraser?” Grey inquired politely. It was gristled, tough, and seemed barely edible to him. But then, he might well think differently, had he been eating oatmeal, weeds, and the occasional rat.

“Aye, it is, Major, I thank ye.” Fraser dabbed up a bit of wine sauce and brought the last bite to his lips, making no demur when Grey signaled MacKay to bring back the platter.

“Monsieur Arouet wouldna appreciate such an excellent meal, I’m afraid,” Fraser said, shaking his head as he helped himself to more mutton.

“I should expect a man so feted in French society to have somewhat more exacting tastes,” Grey answered dryly. Half his own meal remained on his plate, destined for the supper of the cat Augustus.

Fraser laughed. “Scarcely that, Major,” he assured Grey. “I have never seen Monsieur Arouet consume anything beyond a glass of water and a dry biscuit, no matter how lavish the occasion. He’s a weazened wee scrap of a man, ye ken, and a martyr to the indigestion.”

“Indeed?” Grey was fascinated. “Perhaps that explains the cynicism of some of the sentiments I have seen expressed in his plays. Or do you not think that the character of an author shows in the construction of his work?”

“Given some of the characters that I have seen appear in plays and novels, Major, I should think the author a bit depraved who drew them entirely from himself, no?”

“I suppose that is so,” Grey answered, smiling at the thought of some of the more extreme fictional characters with whom he was acquainted. “Though if an author constructs these colorful personages from life, rather than from the depths of imagination, surely he must boast a most varied acquaintance!”

Fraser nodded, brushing crumbs from his lap with the linen napkin.

“It was not Monsieur Arouet, but a colleague of his—a lady novelist—who remarked to me once that writing novels was a cannibal’s art, in which one often mixed small portions of one’s friends and one’s enemies together, seasoned them with imagination, and allowed the whole to stew together into a savory concoction.”

Grey laughed at the description, and beckoned to MacKay to take away the plates and bring in the decanters of port and sherry.

“A delightful description, indeed! Speaking of cannibals, though, have you chanced to be acquainted with Mr. Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe? It has been a favorite of mine since boyhood.”

The conversation turned then to romances, and the excitement of the tropics. It was very late indeed when Fraser returned to his cell, leaving Major Grey entertained, but no wiser concerning either the source or the disposition of the wanderer’s gold.

April 2, 1755

John Grey opened the packet of quills his mother had sent from London. Swan’s quills, both finer and stronger than common goose-quills. He smiled faintly at the sight of them; an unsubtle reminder that his correspondence was in arrears.

His mother would have to wait until tomorrow, though. He took out the small, monogrammed penknife he always carried, and slowly trimmed a quill to his liking, composing in his mind what he meant to say. By the time he dipped his quill into the ink, the words were clear in his mind, and he wrote quickly, seldom pausing.

2 April, 1755

To Harold, Lord Melton, Earl of Moray

My dear Hal, he wrote, I write to inform you of a recent occurrence which has much engaged my attention. It may amount in the end to nothing, but if there be any substance in the matter, it is of great import. The details of the wandering man’s appearance, and the report of his ravings followed swiftly, but Grey found himself slowing as he told of Fraser’s escape and recapture.

The fact that Fraser vanished from the precincts of the prison so soon following these events suggests strongly to me that there was in truth some substance in the vagrant’s words.