Appropriately enough, the weather was dark and stormy when the news reached Helwater. The afternoon exercise had been canceled, owing to the heavy downpour, and the horses were snug in their stalls below. The homely, peaceful sounds of munching and blowing rose up to the loft above, where Jamie Fraser reclined in a comfortable, haylined nest, an open book propped on his chest.
It was one of several he had borrowed from the estate’s factor, Mr. Grieves, and he was finding it absorbing, despite the difficulty of reading by the poor light from the owl-slits beneath the eaves.
My lips, which I threw in his way, so as that he could not escape kissing them, fix’d, fir’d and embolden’d him: and now, glancing my eyes towards that part of his dress which cover’d the essential object of enjoyment, I plainly discover’d the swell and commotion there; and as I was now too far advanc’d to stop in so fair a way, and was indeed no longer able to contain myself, or wait the slower progress of his maiden bashfulness, I stole my hand upon his thighs, down one of which I could both see and feel a stiff hard body, confin’d by his breeches, that my fingers could discover no end to.
“Oh, aye?” Jamie muttered skeptically. He raised his eyebrows and shifted himself on the hay. He had been aware that books like this existed, of course, but—with Jenny ordering the reading matter at Lallybroch—had not encountered one personally before. The type of mental engagement demanded was somewhat different from that required for the works of Messieurs Defoe and Fielding, but he was not averse to variety.
Its prodigious size made me shrink again; yet I could not, without pleasure, behold, and even ventur’d to feel, such a length, such a breadth of animated ivory! perfectly well turn’d and fashion’d, the proud stiffness of which distended its skin, whose smooth polish and velvet softness might vie with that of the most delicate of our sex, and whose exquisite whiteness was not a little set off by a sprout of black curling hair round the root; then the broad and blueish casted incarnate of the head, and blue serpentines of its veins, altogether compos’d the most striking assemblage of figures and colors in nature. In short, it stood an object of terror and delight!
Jamie glanced at his own crotch and snorted briefly at this, but flipped the page, the crash of thunder outside meriting no more than a twinge of his attention. He was so absorbed that at first he failed to hear the noises down below, the sound of voices drowned in the heavy rush and beat of the rain on the planks a few feet above his head.
“MacKenzie!” The repeated stentorian bellow finally penetrated his awareness, and he rolled hastily to his feet, quickly straightening his clothes as he went toward the ladder.
“Aye?” He thrust his head over the edge of the loft to see Hughes, just opening his mouth for another bellow.
“Oh, there ’ee are.” Hughes shut his mouth, and beckoned with one gnarled hand, wincing as he did so. Hughes suffered mightily from rheumatics in damp weather; he had been riding out the storm snug in the small chamber beside the tack room, where he kept a bed and a jug of crudely distilled spirits. The aroma was perceptible from the loft, and grew substantially stronger as Jamie descended the ladder.
“You’re to help ready the coach to drive Lord Dunsany and Lady Isobel to Ellesmere,” Hughes told him, the moment his foot touched the flags of the stable floor. The old man swayed alarmingly, hiccuping softly to himself.
“Now? Are ye daft, man? Or just drunk?” He glanced at the open half-door behind Hughes, which seemed a solid sheet of streaming water. Even as he looked, the sky beyond lit up with a sudden flare of lightning that threw the mountain beyond into sudden sharp relief. Just as suddenly, it disappeared, leaving its afterimage printed on his retina. He shook his head to clear the image, and saw Jeffries, the coachman, making his way across the yard, head bowed against the force of wind and water, cloak clutched tight about him. So it wasn’t only a drunken fancy of Hughes’s.
“Jeffries needs help wi’ the horses!” Hughes was forced to lean close and shout to be heard over the noise of the storm. The smell of rough alcohol was staggering at close distance.
“Aye, but why? Why must Lord Dunsany—ah, feckit!” The head groom’s eyes were red-rimmed and bleary; clearly there was no sense to be got out of him. Disgusted, Jamie pushed past the man and mounted the ladder two rungs at a time.
A moment to wrap his own worn cloak about him, a moment more to thrust the book he had been reading under the hay—stable lads were no respecters of property—and he was slithering down the ladder again, and out into the roar of the storm.
It was a hellish journey. The wind screamed through the pass, striking the bulky coach and threatening to overturn it at any moment. Perched aloft beside Jeffries, a cloak was little protection against the driving rain; still less was it a help when he was forced to dismount—as he did every few minutes, it seemed—and put his shoulder to the wheel to free the miserable contrivance from the clinging grip of a mudhole.
Still, he scarcely noticed the physical inconvenience of the journey, preoccupied as he was with the possible reasons for it. There couldn’t be many matters of such urgency as to force an old man like Lord Dunsany outside on a day like this, let alone over the rutted road to Ellesmere. Some word had come from Ellesmere, and it could only concern the Lady Geneva or her child.
Hearing through the servants’ gossip that Lady Geneva was due to be delivered in January, he had counted quickly backward, cursed Geneva Dunsany once more, and then said a hasty prayer for her safe delivery. Since then, he had done his best not to think about it. He had been with her only three days before her wedding; he couldn’t be sure.
A week before, Lady Dunsany had gone to Ellesmere to be with her daughter. Since then, she had sent daily messengers home, to fetch the dozen things she had forgotten to take and must have at once, and each of them, upon arrival at Helwater, had reported “No news yet.” Now there was news, and it was plainly bad.
Passing back toward the front of the coach, after the latest battle with the mud, he saw the Lady Isobel’s face peering out from beneath the isinglass sheet that covered the window.
“Oh, MacKenzie!” she said, her face contorted in fear and distress. “Please, is it much farther?”
He leaned close to shout in her ear, over the gurgle and rush of the gullies running down both sides of the road.
“Jeffries says it’s four mile yet, milady! Two hours, maybe.” If the damned and hell-bent coach didn’t tip itself and its hapless passengers off the Ashness Bridge into Watendlath Tarn, he added silently to himself.
Isobel nodded her thanks, and lowered the window, but not before he had seen that the wetness upon her cheeks was due as much to tears as to the rain. The snake of anxiety wrapped round his heart slithered lower, to twist in his guts.
It was closer to three hours by the time the coach rolled at last into the courtyard at Ellesmere. Without hesitation, Lord Dunsany leapt down and, scarcely pausing to give his younger daughter an arm, hurried into the house.
It took nearly another hour to unharness the team, rub down the horses, wash the caked-on mud from the coach’s wheels, and put everything away in Ellesmere’s stables. Numb with cold, fatigue, and hunger, he and Jeffries sought refuge and sustenance in Ellesmere’s kitchens.
“Poor fellows, you’re gone right blue wi’ the cold,” the cook observed. “Sit ye down ’ere, and I’ll soon ’ave yer a hot bite.” A sharp-faced, spare-framed woman, her figure belied her skill, for within minutes, a huge, savoury omelet was laid before them, garnished with liberal amounts of bread and butter, and a small pot of jam.
“Fair, quite fair,” Jeffries pronounced, casting an appreciative eye on the spread. He winked at the cook. “Not as it wouldn’ go down easier wi’ a drop o’ something to pave the way, eh? You look the sort would have mercy on a pair o’ poor half-frozen chaps, wouldn’t ye, darlin’?”
Whether it was this piece of Irish persuasion or the sight of their dripping, steaming clothes, the argument had its effect, and a bottle of cooking brandy made its appearance next to the peppermill. Jeffries poured a large tot and drank it off without hesitation, smacking his lips.
“Ah, that’s more like! Here, boyo.” He passed the bottle to Jamie, then settled himself comfortably to a hot meal and gossip with the female servants. “Well, then, what’s to do here? Is the babe born yet?”
“Oh, yes, last night!” the kitchen maid said eagerly. “We were up all night, with the doctor comin’, and fresh sheets and towels called for, and the house all topsle-turvy. But the babe’s the least of it!”
“Now, then,” the cook broke in, frowning censoriously. “There’s too much work to be standin’ about gossiping. Get yer on, Mary Ann-up to the study, and see if his Lordship’ll be wantin’ anything else served now.”
Jamie, wiping his plate with a slice of bread, observed that the maid, far from being abashed at this rebuke, departed with alacrity, causing him to deduce that something of considerable interest was likely transpiring in the study.
The undivided attention of her audience thus obtained, the cook allowed herself to be persuaded into imparting the gossip with no more than a token demur.
“Well, it started some months ago, when the Lady Geneva started to show, poor thing. His Lordship’d been nicer than pie to ’er, ever since they was married couldn’t do enough for ’er, anything she wanted ordered from Lunnon, always askin’ was she warm enough,’ad she what she wanted to eat—fair dotin’, ’is Lordship was. But then, when ’e found she was with child!” The cook paused, to screw up her face portentously.
Jamie wanted desperately to know about the child; what was it, and how did it fare? There seemed no way to hurry the woman, though, so he composed his face to look as interested as possible, leaning forward encouragingly.
“Why, the shouting, and the carryings-on!” the cook said, throwing up her hands in dismayed illustration, “’im shoutin’, and ’er cryin’, and the both of ’em stampin’ up and down and slammin’ doors, and ’im callin’ ’er names as isn’t fit to be used in a stableyard—and so I told Mary Ann, when she told me.…”
“Was his lordship not pleased about the child, then?” Jamie interrupted. The omelet was settling into a hard lump somewhere under his breastbone. He took another gulp of brandy, in hopes of dislodging it.
The cook turned a bright, birdlike eye on him, eyebrow cocked in appreciation at his intelligence. “Well, you’d think as ’e would be, wouldn’t yer? But no indeed! Far from it,” she added with emphasis.
“Why not?” said Jeffries, only mildly interested.
“’E said,” the cook said, dropping her voice in awe at the scandalousness of the information, “as the child wasn’t ’is!”
Jeffries, well along with his second glass, snorted in contemptuous amusement. “Old goat with a young gel? I should think it like enough, but how on earth would his Lordship know for sure whose the spawn was? Could be his as much as anyone’s, couldn’t it, with only her ladyship’s word to go by, eh?”