Author: P Hana

Page 59


“Ah…no. We willna be going to the printshop.” I couldn’t see his face, but there seemed a certain reserve in his manner. Perhaps he had a residence somewhere else in the city? I felt a certain hollowness at the prospect; the room above the printshop was very clearly a monk’s cell; but perhaps he had an entire house somewhere else—with a family in it? There had been no time for any but the most essential exchange of information at the printshop. I had no way of knowing what he had done over the last twenty years, or what he might now be doing.

Still, he had plainly been glad—to say the least—to see me, and the air of frowning consideration he now bore might well have to do with his inebriated associate, rather than with me.

He bent over the barrel, saying something in Scots-accented Chinese. This was one of the odder sounds I had ever heard; rather like the squeaks of a bagpipe tuning up, I thought, vastly entertained by the performance.

Whatever he’d said, Mr. Willoughby replied to it volubly, interrupting himself with giggles and snorts. At last, the little Chinese climbed out of the barrel, his diminutive figure silhouetted by the light of a distant lantern in the alleyway. He sprang down with fair agility and promptly prostrated himself on the ground before me.

Bearing in mind what Jamie had told me about the feet, I took a quick step back, but Jamie laid a reassuring hand on my arm.

“Nay, it’s all right, Sassenach,” he said. “He’s only makin’ amends for his disrespect to ye earlier.”

“Oh. Well.” I looked dubiously at Mr. Willoughby, who was gabbling something to the ground under his face. At a loss for the proper etiquette, I stooped down and patted him on the head. Evidently that was all right, for he leapt to his feet and bowed to me several times, until Jamie told him impatiently to stop, and we made our way back to the Royal Mile.

The building Jamie led us to was discreetly hidden down a small close just above the Kirk of the Canongate, perhaps a quarter-mile above Holyrood Palace. I saw the lanterns mounted by the gates of the palace below, and shivered slightly at the sight. We had lived with Charles Stuart in the palace for nearly five weeks, in the early, victorious phase of his short career. Jamie’s uncle, Colum MacKenzie, had died there.

The door opened to Jamie’s knock, and all thoughts of the past vanished. The woman who stood peering out at us, candle in hand, was petite, dark-haired and elegant. Seeing Jamie, she drew him in with a glad cry, and kissed his cheek in greeting. My insides squeezed tight as a fist, but then relaxed again, as I heard him greet her as “Madame Jeanne.” Not what one would call a wife—nor yet, I hoped, a mistress.

Still, there was something about the woman that made me uneasy. She was clearly French, though she spoke English well—not so odd; Edinburgh was a seaport, and a fairly cosmopolitan city. She was dressed soberly, but richly, in heavy silk cut with a flair, but she wore a good deal more rouge and powder than the average Scotswoman. What disturbed me was the way she was looking at me—frowning, with a palpable air of distaste.

“Monsieur Fraser,” she said, touching Jamie on the shoulder with a possessive air that I didn’t like at all, “if I might have a word in private with you?”

Jamie, handing his cloak to the maid who came to fetch it, took a quick look at me, and read the situation at once.

“Of course, Madame Jeanne,” he said courteously, reaching out a hand to draw me forward. “But first—allow me to introduce my wife, Madame Fraser.”

My heart stopped beating for a moment, then resumed, with a force that I was sure was audible to everyone in the small entry hall. Jamie’s eyes met mine, and he smiled, the grip of his fingers tightening on my arm.

“Your…wife?” I couldn’t tell whether astonishment or horror was more pronounced on Madame Jeanne’s face. “But Monsieur Fraser…you bring her here? I thought…a woman…well enough, but to insult our own jeune filles is not good…but then…a wife…” Her mouth hung open unbecomingly, displaying several decayed molars. Then she shook herself suddenly back into an attitude of flustered poise, and inclined her head to me with an attempt at graciousness. “Bonsoir…Madame.”

“Likewise, I’m sure,” I said politely.

“Is my room ready, Madame?” Jamie said. Without waiting for an answer, he turned toward the stair, taking me with him. “We shall be spending the night.”

He glanced back at Mr. Willoughby, who had come in with us. He had sat down at once on the floor, where he sat dripping rain, a dreamy expression on his small, flat face.

“Er…?” Jamie made a small questioning motion toward Mr. Willoughby, his eyebrows raised at Madame Jeanne. She stared at the little Chinese for a moment as though wondering where he had come from, then, returned to herself, clapped her hands briskly for the maid.

“See if Mademoiselle Josie is at liberty, if you please, Pauline,” she said. “And then fetch up hot water and fresh towels for Monsieur Fraser and his…wife.” She spoke the word with a sort of stunned amazement, as though she still didn’t quite believe it.

“Oh, and one more thing, if you would be so kind, Madame?” Jamie leaned over the banister, smiling down at her. “My wife will require a fresh gown; she has had an unfortunate accident to her wardrobe. If you could provide something suitable by morning? Thank you, Madame Jeanne. Bonsoir!”

I didn’t speak, as I followed him up four flights of winding stairs to the top of the house. I was much too busy thinking, my mind in a whirl. “Pimpmaster,” the lad in the pub had called him. But surely that was only an epithet—such a thing was absolutely impossible. For the Jamie Fraser I had known, it was impossible, I corrected myself, looking up at the broad shoulders under the dark gray serge coat. But for this man?

I didn’t know quite what I had been expecting, but the room was quite ordinary, small and clean—though that was extraordinary, come to think of it—furnished with a stool, a simple bed and chest of drawers, upon which stood a basin and ewer and a clay candlestick with a beeswax candle, which Jamie lighted from the taper he had carried up.

He shucked off his wet coat and draped it carelessly on the stool, then sat down on the bed to remove his wet shoes.

“God,” he said, “I’m starving. I hope the cook’s not gone to bed yet.”

“Jamie…” I said.

“Take off your cloak, Sassenach,” he said, noticing me still standing against the door. “You’re soaked.”

“Yes. Well…yes.” I swallowed, then went on. “There’s just…er…Jamie, why have you got a regular room in a brothel?” I burst out.

He rubbed his chin, looking mildly embarrassed. “I’m sorry, Sassenach,” he said. “I know it wasna right to bring ye here, but it was the only place I could think of where we might get your dress mended at short notice, besides finding a hot supper. And then I had to put Mr. Willoughby where he wouldna get in more trouble, and as we had to come here anyway…well”—he glanced at the bed—“it’s a good deal more comfortable than my cot at the printshop. But perhaps it was a poor idea. We can leave, if ye feel it’s not—”

“I don’t mind about that,” I interrupted. “The question is—why have you got a room in a brothel? Are you such a good customer that—”

“A customer?” He stared up at me, eyebrows raised. “Here? God, Sassenach, what d’ye think I am?”

“Damned if I know,” I said. “That’s why I’m asking. Are you going to answer my question?”

He stared at his stockinged feet for a moment, wiggling his toes on the floorboard. At last he looked up at me, and answered calmly, “I suppose so. I’m not a customer of Jeanne’s, but she’s a customer of mine—and a good one. She keeps a room for me because I’m often abroad late on business, and I’d as soon have a place I can come to where I can have food and a bed at any hour, and privacy. The room is part of my arrangement with her.”

I had been holding my breath. Now I let out about half of it. “All right,” I said. “Then I suppose the next question is, what business has the owner of a brothel got with a printer?” The absurd thought that perhaps he printed advertising circulars for Madame Jeanne flitted through my brain, to be instantly dismissed.

“Well,” he said slowly. “No. I dinna think that’s the question.”

“It’s not?”

“No.” With one fluid move, he was off the bed and standing in front of me, close enough for me to have to look up into his face. I had a sudden urge to take a step backward, but didn’t, largely because there wasn’t room.

“The question is, Sassenach, why have ye come back?” he said softly.

“That’s a hell of a question to ask me!” My palms pressed flat against the rough wood of the door. “Why do you think I came back, damn you?”

“I dinna ken.” The soft Scottish voice was cool, but even in the dim light, I could see the pulse throbbing in the open throat of his shirt.

“Did ye come to be my wife again? Or only to bring me word of my daughter?” As though he sensed that his nearness unnerved me, he turned away suddenly, moving toward the window, where the shutters creaked in the wind.

“You are the mother of my child—for that alone, I owe ye my soul—for the knowledge that my life hasna been in vain—that my child is safe.” He turned again to face me, blue eyes intent.

“But it has been a time, Sassenach, since you and I were one. You’ll have had your life—then—and I have had mine here. You’ll know nothing of what I’ve done, or been. Did ye come now because ye wanted to—or because ye felt ye must?”

My throat felt tight, but I met his eyes.

“I came now because before…I thought you were dead. I thought you’d died at Culloden.”

His eyes dropped to the windowsill, where he picked at a splinter.

“Aye, I see,” he said softly. “Well…I meant to be dead.” He smiled, without humor, eyes intent on the splinter. “I tried hard enough.” He looked up at me again.

“How did ye find out I hadna died? Or where I was, come to that?”

“I had help. A young historian named Roger Wakefield found the records; he tracked you to Edinburgh. And when I saw ‘A. Malcolm,’ I knew…I thought…it might be you,” I ended lamely. Time enough for the details later.

“Aye, I see. And then ye came. But still…why?”

I stared at him without speaking for a moment. As though he felt the need of air, or perhaps only for something to do, he fumbled with the latch of the shutters and thrust them halfway open, flooding the room with the sound of rushing water, and the cold, fresh smell of rain.

“Are you trying to tell me you don’t want me to stay?” I said, finally. “Because if so…I mean, I know you’ll have a life now…maybe you have…other ties…” With unnaturally acute senses, I could hear the small sounds of activity throughout the house below, even above the rush of the storm, and the pounding of my own heart. My palms were damp, and I wiped them surreptitiously against my skirt.