The cook’s thin mouth stretched in a bright, malicious smile. “Oh, I don’t say as ’e’d know whose it was, now—but there’s one sure way ’e’d know it wasn’t ’is, now isn’t there?”
Jeffries stared at the cook, tilting back on his chair. “What?” he said. “You mean to tell me his Lordship’s incapable?” A broad grin at this juicy thought split his weatherbeaten face. Jamie felt the omelet rising, and hastily gulped more brandy.
“Well, I couldn’t say, I’m sure.” The cook’s mouth assumed a prim line, then split asunder to add, “though the chambermaid did say as the sheets she took off the weddin’ bed was as white as when they’d gone on, to be sure.”
It was too much. Interrupting Jeffries’s delighted cackle, Jamie set down his glass with a thump, and bluntly said, “Did the child live?”
The cook and Jeffries both stared in astonishment, but the cook, after a moment’s startlement, nodded in answer.
“Oh, yes, to be sure. Fine ’ealthy little lad,’e is, too, or so I ’ear. I thought you knew a’ready. It’s ’is mother that’s dead.”
That blunt statement struck the kitchen with silence. Even Jeffries was still for a moment, sobered by death. Then he crossed himself quickly, muttered, “God rest her soul,” and swallowed the rest of his brandy.
Jamie could feel his own throat burning, whether with brandy or tears, he could not say. Shock and grief choked him like a ball of yarn wedged in his gullet; he could barely manage to croak, “When?”
“This morning,” the cook said, wagging her head mournfully. “Just afore noon, poor girl. They thought for a time as she’d be all right, after the babe was born; Mary Ann said she was sittin’ up, holdin’ the wee thing and laughin’.” She sighed heavily at the thought. “But then near dawn, she started to bleed again bad. They called back the doctor, and he came fast as could be, but—”
The door slamming open interrupted her. It was Mary Ann, eyes wide under her cap, gasping with excitement and exertion.
“Your master wants you!” she blurted out, eyes flicking between Jamie and the coachman. “The both of ye, at once, and oh, sir”—she gulped, nodding at Jeffries—“he says for God’s sake, to bring your pistols!”
The coachman exchanged a glance of consternation with Jamie, then leapt to his feet and dashed out, in the direction of the stables. Like most coachmen, he carried a pair of loaded pistols beneath his seat, against the possibility of highwaymen.
It would take Jeffries a few minutes to find the arms, and longer if he waited to check that the priming had not been harmed by the wet weather. Jamie rose to his feet and gripped the dithering maidservant by the arm.
“Show me to the study,” he said. “Now!”
The sound of raised voices would have led him there, once he had reached the head of the stair. Pushing past Mary Ann without ceremony, he paused for a moment outside the door, uncertain whether he should enter at once, or wait for Jeffries.
“That you can have the sheer heartless effrontery to make such accusations!” Dunsany was saying, his old man’s voice shaking with rage and distress. “And my poor lamb not cold in her bed! You blackguard, you poltroon! I will not suffer the child to stay a single night under your roof!”
“The little bastard stays here!” Ellesmere’s voice rasped hoarsely. It would have been apparent to a far less experienced observer that his Lordship was well the worse for drink. “Bastard that he is, he’s my heir, and he stays with me! He’s bought and paid for, and if his dam was a whore, at least she gave me a boy.”
“Damn you!” Dunsany’s voice had reached such a pitch of shrillness that it was scarcely more than a squeak, but the outrage in it was clear nonetheless. “Bought? You—you—you dare to suggest…”
“I don’t suggest.” Ellesmere’s voice was still hoarse, but under better control. “You sold me your daughter—and under false pretenses, I might add,” the hoarse voice said sarcastically. “I paid thirty thousand pound for a virgin of good name. The first condition wasn’t met, and I take leave to doubt the second.” The sound of liquid being poured came through the door, followed by the scrape of a glass across a wooden tabletop.
“I would suggest that your burden of spirits is already excessive, sir,” Dunsany said. His voice shook with an obvious attempt at mastery of his emotions. “I can only attribute the disgusting slurs you have cast upon my daughter’s purity to your apparent intoxication. That being so, I shall take my grandson, and go.”
“Oh, your grandson, is it?” Ellesmere’s voice was slurred and sneering. “You seem damned sure of your daughter’s ‘purity.’ Sure the brat isn’t yours? She said—”
He broke off with a cry of astonishment, accompanied by a crash. Not daring to wait longer, Jamie plunged through the door, to find Ellesmere and Lord Dunsany entangled on the hearthrug, rolling to and fro in a welter of coats and limbs, both heedless of the fire behind them.
He took a moment to appraise the situation, then, seizing a fortuitous opening, reached into the fray and snatched his employer upright.
“Be still, my lord,” he muttered in Dunsany’s ear, dragging him back from Ellesmere’s gasping form. Then, “Give over, ye auld fool!” he hissed, as Dunsany went on mindlessly struggling to reach his opponent. Ellesmere was almost as old as Dunsany, but more strongly built and clearly in better health, despite his drunkenness.
The Earl staggered to his feet, balding hair disheveled and bloodshot eyes glaring fixedly at Dunsany. He wiped his spittle-flecked mouth with the back of his hand, fat shoulders heaving.
“Filth,” he said, almost conversationally. “Lay hands…on me, would you?” Still gasping for breath, he lurched toward the bell rope.
It was by no means certain that Lord Dunsany would stay on his feet, but there was no time to worry about that. Jamie let go of his employer, and lunged for Ellesmere’s groping hand.
“No, my lord,” he said, as respectfully as possible. Holding Ellesmere in a crude bear-leading embrace, he forced the heavyset Earl back across the room. “I think it would be…unwise…to involve your…servants.” Grunting, he pushed Ellesmere into a chair.
“Best stay there, my lord.” Jeffries, a drawn pistol in each hand, advanced warily into the room, his darting glance divided between Ellesmere, struggling to rise from the depths of the armchair, and Lord Dunsany, who clung precariously to a table edge, his aged face white as paper.
Jeffries glanced at Dunsany for instructions, and seeing none forthcoming, instinctively looked to Jamie. Jamie was conscious of a monstrous irritation; why should he be expected to deal with this imbroglio? Still, it was important that the Helwater party remove themselves from the premises with all haste. He stepped forward and took Dunsany by the arm.
“Let us go now, my lord,” he said. Detaching the wilting Dunsany from the table, he tried to edge the tall old nobleman toward the door. Just at this moment of escape, though, the door was blocked.
“William?” Lady Dunsany’s round face, splotched with the marks of recent grief, showed a sort of dull bewilderment at the scene in the study. In her arms was what looked like a large, untidy bundle of washing. She lifted this in a movement of vague inquiry. “The maid said you wanted me to bring the baby. What—” A roar from Ellesmere interrupted her. Heedless of the pointing pistols, the Earl sprang from his chair and shoved the gawking Jeffries out of the way.
“He’s mine!” Knocking Lady Dunsany roughly against the paneling, Ellesmere snatched the bundle from her arms. Clutching it to his bosom, the Earl retreated toward the window. He glared at Dunsany, panting like a cornered beast.
“Mine, d’ye hear?”
The bundle emitted a loud shriek, as if in protest at this asseveration, and Dunsany, roused from his shock by the sight of his grandson in Ellesmere’s arms, started forward, his features contorted in fury.
“Give him to me!”
“Go to hell, you codless scut!” With an unforeseen agility, Ellesmere dodged away from Dunsany. He flung back the draperies and cranked the window open with one hand, clutching the wailing child with the other.
“Get—out—of—my—house!” he panted, gasping with each revolution that edged the casement wider. “Go! Now, or I’ll drop the little bastard, I swear I will!” To mark his threat, he thrust the yelling bundle toward the sill, and the empty dark where the wet stones of the courtyard waited, thirty feet below.
Past all conscious thought or any fear of consequence, Jamie Fraser acted on the instinct that had seen him through a dozen battles. He snatched one pistol from the transfixed Jeffries, turned on his heel, and fired in the same motion.
The roar of the shot struck everyone silent. Even the child ceased to scream. Ellesmere’s face went quite blank, thick eyebrows raised in question. Then he staggered, and Jamie leapt forward, noting with a sort of detached clarity the small round hole in the baby’s trailing drapery, where the pistol ball had passed through it.
He stood then rooted on the hearthrug, heedless of the fire scorching the backs of his legs, of the still-heaving body of Ellesmere at his feet, of the regular, hysterical shrieks of Lady Dunsany, piercing as a peacock’s. He stood, eyes tight closed, shaking like a leaf, unable either to move or to think, arms wrapped tight about the shapeless, squirming, squawking bundle that contained his son.
“I wish to speak to MacKenzie. Alone.”
Lady Dunsany looked distinctly out of place in the stable. Small, plump, and impeccable in black linen, she looked like a china ornament, removed from its spot of cherished safety on the mantelpiece, and in imminent and constant peril of breakage, here in this world of rough animals and unshaven men.
Hughes, with a glance of complete astonishment at his mistress, bowed and tugged at his forelock before retreating to his den behind the tack room, leaving MacKenzie face-to-face with her.
Close to, the impression of fragility was heightened by the paleness of her face, touched faintly with pink at the corners of nose and eyes. She looked like a very small and dignified rabbit, dressed in mourning. Jamie felt that he should ask her to sit down, but there was no place for her to sit, save on a pile of hay or an upturned barrow.
“The coroner’s court met this morning, MacKenzie,” she said.
“Aye, milady.” He had known that—they all had, and the other grooms had kept their distance from him all morning. Not out of respect; out of the dread for one who suffers from a deadly disease. Jeffries knew what had happened in the drawing room at Ellesmere, and that meant all the servants knew. But no one spoke of it.
“The verdict of the court was that the Earl of Ellesmere met his death by misadventure. The coroner’s theory is that his lordship was—distraught”—she made a faint moue of distaste—“over my daughter’s death.” Her voice quivered faintly, but did not break. The fragile Lady Dunsany had borne up much better beneath the tragedy than had her husband; the servants’ rumor had it that his lordship had not risen from his bed since his return from Ellesmere.