Author: P Hana

Page 58


“He’s all right when he’s sober,” Jamie explained apologetically to me, as he hoisted the Chinese over one shoulder. “But he really shouldna drink brandy. He’s a terrible sot.”

“So I see. Where on earth did you get him?” Fascinated, I followed Jamie up the stairs, watching Mr. Willoughby’s pigtail swing back and forth like a metronome across the felted gray wool of Jamie’s cloak.

“On the docks.” But before he could explain further, the door above opened, and we were back in the tavern’s kitchen. The stout proprietor saw us emerge, and came toward us, her fat cheeks puffed with disapproval.

“Now, Mr. Malcolm,” she began, frowning, “ye ken verra weel as you’re welcome here, and ye’ll ken as weel that I’m no a fussy woman, such not bein’ a convenient attitude when maintainin’ a public hoose. But I’ve telt ye before, yon wee yellow mannie is no—”

“Aye, ye’ve mentioned it, Mrs. Patterson,” Jamie interrupted. He dug in his pocket and came up with a coin, which he handed to the stout publican with a bow. “And your forbearance is much appreciated. It willna happen again. I hope,” he added under his breath. He placed his hat on his head, bowed again to Mrs. Patterson, and ducked under the low lintel into the main tavern.

Our reentry caused another stir, but a negative one this time. People fell silent, or muttered half-heard curses under their breath. I gathered that Mr. Willoughby was perhaps not this local’s most popular patron.

Jamie edged his way through the crowd, which gave way reluctantly. I followed as best I could, trying not to meet anyone’s eyes, and trying not to breathe. Unused as I was to the unhygienic miasma of the eighteenth century, the stench of so many unwashed bodies in a small space was nearly overwhelming.

Near the door, though, we met trouble, in the person of a buxom young woman whose dress was a notch above the sober drab of the landlady and her daughter. Her neckline was a notch lower, and I hadn’t much trouble in guessing her principal occupation. Absorbed in flirtatious conversation with a couple of apprentice lads when we emerged from the kitchen, she looked up as we passed, and sprang to her feet with a piercing scream, knocking over a cup of ale in the process.

“It’s him!” she screeched, pointing a wavering finger at Jamie. “The foul fiend!” Her eyes seemed to have trouble focusing; I gathered that the spilled ale wasn’t her first of the evening, early as it was.

Her companions stared at Jamie with interest, the more so when the young lady advanced, stabbing her finger in the air like one leading a chorus. “Him! The wee poolie I telt ye of—him that did the disgustin’ thing to me!”

I joined the rest of the crowd in looking at Jamie with interest, but quickly realized, as did they, that the young woman was not talking to him, but rather to his burden.

“Ye neffit qurd!” she yelled, addressing her remarks to the seat of Mr. Willoughby’s blue-silk trousers. “Hiddie-pyke! Slug!”

This spectacle of maidenly distress was rousing her companions; one, a tall, burly lad, stood up, fists clenched, and leaned on the table, eyes gleaming with ale and aggro.

“S’him, aye? Shall I knivvle him for ye, Maggie?”

“Dinna try, laddie,” Jamie advised him shortly, shifting his burden for better balance. “Drink your drink, and we’ll be gone.”

“Oh, aye? And you’re the little ked’s pimpmaster, are ye?” The lad sneered unbecomingly, his flushed face turning in my direction. “At least your other whore’s no yellow—le’s ha’ a look at her.” He flung out a paw and grabbed the edge of my cloak, revealing the low bodice of the Jessica Gutenburg.

“Looks pink enough to me,” said his friend, with obvious approval. “Is she like it all over?” Before I could move, he snatched at the bodice, catching the edge of the lace. Not designed for the rigors of eighteenth-century life, the flimsy fabric ripped halfway down the side, exposing quite a lot of pink.

“Leave off, ye whoreson!” Jamie swung about, eyes blazing, free fist doubled in threat.

“Who ye miscallin’, ye skrae-shankit skoot?” The first youth, unable to get out from behind the table, leapt on top of it, and launched himself at Jamie, who neatly sidestepped the lad, allowing him to crash face-first into the wall.

Jamie took one giant step toward the table, brought his fist down hard on top of the other apprentice’s head, making the lad’s jaw go slack, then grabbed me by the hand and dragged me out the door.

“Come on!” he said, grunting as he shifted the Chinaman’s slippery form for a better grip. “They’ll be after us any moment!”

They were; I could hear the shouting as the more boisterous elements poured out of the tavern into the street behind us. Jamie took the first opening off the Royal Mile, into a narrow, dark wynd, and we splashed through mud and unidentifiable slops, ducked through an archway, and down another twisting alleyway that seemed to lead through the bowels of Edinburgh. Dark walls flashed past, and splintered wooden doors, and then we were round a corner, in a small courtyard, where we paused for breath.

“What…on earth…did he do?” I gasped. I couldn’t imagine what the little Chinese could have done to a strapping young wench like the recent Maggie. From all appearances, she could have squashed him like a fly.

“Well, it’s the feet, ye ken,” Jamie explained, with a glance of resigned irritation at Mr. Willoughby.

“Feet?” I glanced involuntarily at the tiny Chinese man’s feet, neat miniatures shod in felt-soled black satin.

“Not his,” Jamie said, catching my glance. “The women’s.”

“What women?” I asked.

“Well, so far it’s only been whores,” he said, glancing through the archway in search of pursuit, “but ye canna tell what he may try. No judgment,” he explained briefly. “He’s a heathen.”

“I see,” I said, though so far, I didn’t. “What—”

“There they are!” A shout at the far end of the alley interrupted my question.

“Damn, I thought they’d give it up. Come on, this way!”

We were off once more, down an alley, back onto the Royal Mile, a few steps down the hill, and back into a close. I could hear shouts and cries behind us on the main street, but Jamie grasped my arm and jerked me after him through an open doorway, into a yard full of casks, bundles, and crates. He looked frantically about, then heaved Mr. Willoughby’s limp body into a large barrel filled with rubbish. Pausing only long enough to drop a piece of canvas on the Chinese’s head for concealment, he dragged me behind a wagon loaded with crates, and pulled me down beside him.

I was gasping from the unaccustomed exertion, and my heart was racing from the adrenaline of fear. Jamie’s face was flushed with cold and exercise, and his hair was sticking up in several directions, but he was scarcely breathing hard.

“Do you do this sort of thing all the time?” I asked, pressing a hand to my bosom in a vain effort to make my heart slow down.

“Not exactly,” he said, peering warily over the top of the wagon in search of pursuit.

The echo of pounding feet came faintly, then disappeared, and everything was quiet, save for the patter of rain on the boxes above us.

“They’ve gone past. We’d best stay here a bit, to make sure, though.” He lifted down a crate for me to sit on, procured another for himself, and sat down sighing, pushing the loose hair out of his face with one hand.

He gave me a lopsided smile. “I’m sorry, Sassenach. I didna think it would be quite so…”

“Eventful?” I finished for him. I smiled back and pulled out a handkerchief to wipe a drop of moisture from the end of my nose. “It’s all right.” I glanced at the large barrel, where stirrings and rustlings indicated that Mr. Willoughby was returning to a more or less conscious state. “Er…how do you know about the feet?”

“He told me; he’s a taste for the drink, ye ken,” he explained, with a glance at the barrel where his colleague lay concealed. “And when he’s taken a drop too much, he starts talkin’ about women’s feet, and all the horrible things he wants to do wi’ them.”

“What sort of horrible things can you do with a foot?” I was fascinated. “Surely the possibilities are limited.”

“No, they aren’t,” Jamie said grimly. “But it isna something I want to be talking about in the public street.”

A faint singsong came from the depths of the barrel behind us. It was hard to tell, amid the natural inflections of the language, but I thought Mr. Willoughby was asking a question of some sort.

“Shut up, ye wee poutworm,” Jamie said rudely. “Another word, and I’ll walk on your damn face myself; see how ye like that.” There was a high-pitched giggle, and the barrel fell silent.

“He wants someone to walk on his face?” I asked.

“Aye. You,” Jamie said briefly. He shrugged apologetically, and his cheeks flushed a deeper red. “I hadna time to tell him who ye were.”

“Does he speak English?”

“Oh, aye, in a way, but not many people understand him when he does. I mostly talk to him in Chinee.”

I stared at him. “You speak Chinese?”

He shrugged, tilting his head with a faint smile. “Well, I speak Chinee about as well as Mr. Willoughby speaks English, but then, he hasna got all that much choice in who he talks to, so he puts up wi’ me.”

My heart showed signs of returning to normal, and I leaned back against the wagon bed, my hood farther forward against the drizzle.

“Where on earth did he get a name like Willoughby?” I asked. While I was curious about the Chinese, I was even more curious about what a respectable Edinburgh printer was doing with one, but I felt a certain hesitance in prying into Jamie’s life. Freshly returned from the supposed dead—or its equivalent—I could hardly demand to know all the details of his life on the spot.

Jamie rubbed a hand across his nose. “Aye, well. It’s only that his real name’s Yi Tien Cho. He says it means ‘Leans against heaven.’”

“Too hard for the local Scots to pronounce?” Knowing the insular nature of most Scots, I wasn’t surprised that they were disinclined to venture into strange linguistic waters. Jamie, with his gift for tongues, was a genetic anomaly.

He smiled, teeth a white gleam in the gathering darkness. “Well, it’s no that, so much. It’s only, if ye say his name just a wee bit off, like, it sounds verra much like a coarse word in Gaelic. I thought Willoughby would maybe do better.”

“I see.” I thought perhaps under the circumstances, I shouldn’t ask just what the indelicate Gaelic word was. I glanced over my shoulder, but the coast seemed clear.

Jamie caught the gesture and rose, nodding. “Aye, we can go now; the lads will ha’ gone back to the tavern by now.”

“Won’t we have to pass by The World’s End on the way back to the printshop?” I asked dubiously. “Or is there a back way?” It was full dark by now, and the thought of stumbling through the middens and muddy back passages of Edinburgh was unappealing.