Just then, Jamie spotted Ian below. Cupping his hand around his mouth, he bellowed “Rope!”
Rope there was; the Town Guard had come equipped. Ian snatched the coil from an approaching Guardsman, leaving that worthy blinking in indignation, and turned to face the house.
I caught the gleam of Jamie’s teeth as he grinned down at his brother-in-law, and the look of answering wryness on Ian’s face. How many times had they thrown a rope between them, to raise hay to the barn loft, or bind a load to the wagon for carrying?
The crowd fell back from the whirl of Ian’s arm, and the heavy coil flew up in a smooth parabola, unwinding as it went, landing on Jamie’s outstretched arm with the precision of a bumblebee lighting on a flower. Jamie hauled in the dangling tail, and disappeared momentarily, to anchor the rope about the base of the building’s chimney.
A few precarious moments’ work, and the two smoke-blackened figures had come to a safe landing on the pavement below. Young Ian, rope slung under his arms and round his chest, stood upright for a moment, then, as the tension of the rope slackened, his knees buckled and he slid into a gangling heap on the cobbles.
“Are ye all right? A bhalaich, speak to me!” Ian fell to his knees beside his son, anxiously trying to unknot the rope round Young Ian’s chest, while simultaneously trying to lift up the lad’s lolling head.
Jamie was leaning against the railing of the chocolate shop, black in the face and coughing his lungs out, but otherwise apparently unharmed. I sat down on the boy’s other side, and took his head on my lap.
I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry at the sight of him. When I had seen him in the morning, he had been an appealing-looking lad, if no great beauty, with something of his father’s homely, good-natured looks. Now, at evening, the thick hair over one side of his forehead had been singed to a bleached red stubble, and his eyebrows and lashes had been burned off entirely. The skin beneath was the soot-smeared bright pink of a suckling pig just off the spit.
I felt for a pulse in the spindly neck and found it, reassuringly strong. His breathing was hoarse and irregular, and no wonder; I hoped the lining of his lungs had not been burned. He coughed, long and rackingly, and the thin body convulsed on my lap.
“Is he all right?” Ian’s hands instinctively grabbed his son beneath the armpits and sat him up. His head wobbled to and fro, and he pitched forward into my arms.
“I think so; I can’t tell for sure.” The boy was still coughing, but not fully conscious; I held him against my shoulder like an enormous baby, patting his back futilely as he retched and gagged.
“Is he all right?” This time it was Jamie, squatting breathless alongside me. His voice was so hoarse I wouldn’t have recognized it, roughened as it was by smoke.
“I think so. What about you? You look like Malcolm X,” I said, peering at him over Young Ian’s heaving shoulder.
“I do?” He put a hand to his face, looking startled, then grinned reassuringly. “Nay, I canna say how I look, but I’m no an ex-Malcolm yet; only a wee bit singed round the edges.”
“Get back, get back!” The Guard captain was at my side, gray beard bristling with anxiety, plucking at my sleeve. “Move yourself, ma’am, the roof’s going!”
Sure enough, as we scrambled to safety, the roof of the printshop fell in, and an awed sound rose from the watching crowd as an enormous fountain of sparks whirled skyward, brilliant against the darkening sky.
As though heaven resented this intrusion, the spume of fiery ash was answered by the first pattering of raindrops, plopping heavily on the cobbles all around us. The Edinburghians, who surely ought to have been accustomed to rain by now, made noises of consternation and began to scuttle back into the surrounding buildings like a herd of cockroaches, leaving nature to complete the fire engine’s work.
A moment later, Ian and I were alone with Young Ian. Jamie, having dispensed money liberally to the Guard and other assistants, and having arranged for his press and its fittings to be housed in the barber’s storeroom, trudged wearily toward us.
“How’s the lad?” he asked, wiping a hand down his face. The rain had begun to come down more heavily, and the effect on his soot-blackened countenance was picturesque in the extreme. Ian looked at him, and for the first time, the anger, worry and fear faded somewhat from his countenance. He gave Jamie a lopsided smile.
“He doesna look a great deal better than ye do yourself, man—but I think he’ll do now. Give us a hand, aye?”
Murmuring small Gaelic endearments suitable for babies, Ian bent over his son, who was by this time sitting up groggily on the curbstone, swaying to and fro like a heron in a high wind.
By the time we reached Madame Jeanne’s establishment, Young Ian could walk, though still supported on either side by his father and uncle. Bruno, who opened the door, blinked incredulously at the sight, and then swung the door open, laughing so hard he could barely close it after us.
I had to admit that we were nothing much to look at, wet through and streaming with rain. Jamie and I were both barefoot, and Jamie’s clothes were in rags, singed and torn and covered with streaks of soot. Ian’s dark hair straggled in his eyes, making him look like a drowned rat with a wooden leg.
Young Ian, though, was the focus of attention, as multiple heads came popping out of the drawing room in response to the noise Bruno was making. With his singed hair, swollen red face, beaky nose, and lashless, blinking eyes, he strongly resembled the fledgling young of some exotic bird species—a newly hatched flamingo, perhaps. His face could scarcely grow redder, but the back of his neck flamed crimson, as the sound of feminine giggles followed us up the stairs.
Safely ensconced in the small upstairs sitting room, with the door closed, Ian turned to face his hapless offspring.
“Going to live, are ye, ye wee bugger?” he demanded.
“Aye, sir,” Young Ian replied in a dismal croak, looking rather as though he wished the answer were “No.”
“Good,” his father said grimly. “D’ye want to explain yourself, or shall I just belt hell out of ye now and save us both time?”
“Ye canna thrash someone who’s just had his eyebrows burnt off, Ian,” Jamie protested hoarsely, pouring out a glass of porter from the decanter on the table. “It wouldna be humane.” He grinned at his nephew and handed him the glass, which the boy clutched with alacrity.
“Aye, well. Perhaps not,” Ian agreed, surveying his son. One corner of his mouth twitched. Young Ian was a pitiable sight; he was also an extremely funny one. “That doesna mean ye aren’t going to get your arse blistered later, mind,” he warned the boy, “and that’s besides whatever your mother means to do to ye when she sees ye again. But for now, lad, take your ease.”
Not noticeably reassured by the magnanimous tone of this last statement, Young Ian didn’t answer, but sought refuge in the depths of his glass of porter.
I took my own glass with a good deal of pleasure. I had realized belatedly just why the citizens of Edinburgh reacted to rain with such repugnance; once one was wet through, it was the devil to get dry again in the damp confines of a stone house, with no change of clothes and no heat available but a small hearthfire.
I plucked the damp bodice away from my br**sts, caught Young Ian’s interested glance, and decided regretfully that I really couldn’t take it off with the boy in the room. Jamie seemed to have been corrupting the lad to quite a sufficient extent already. I gulped the porter instead, feeling the rich flavor purl warmingly through my innards.
“D’ye feel well enough to talk a bit, lad?” Jamie sat down opposite his nephew, next to Ian on the hassock.
“Aye…I think so,” Young Ian croaked cautiously. He cleared his throat like a bullfrog and repeated more firmly, “Aye, I can.”
“Good. Well, then. First, how did ye come to be in the printshop, and then, how did it come to be on fire?”
Young Ian pondered that one for a minute, then took another gulp of his porter for courage and said, “I set it.”
Jamie and Ian both sat up straight at that. I could see Jamie revising his opinion as to the advisability of thrashing people without eyebrows, but he mastered his temper with an obvious effort, and said merely, “Why?”
The boy took another gulp of porter, coughed, and drank again, apparently trying to decide what to say.
“Well,” he began uncertainly, “there was a man,” and came to a dead stop.
“A man,” Jamie prompted patiently when his nephew showed signs of having become suddenly deaf and dumb. “What man?”
Young Ian clutched his glass in both hands, looking deeply unhappy.
“Answer your uncle this minute, clot,” Ian said sharply. “Or I’ll take ye across my knee and tan ye right here.”
With a mixture of similar threats and promptings, the two men managed to extract a more or less coherent story from the boy.
Young Ian had been at the tavern at Kerse that morning, where he had been told to meet Wally, who would come down from the rendezvous with the wagons of brandy, there to load the punked casks and spoiled wine to be used as subterfuge.
“Told?” Ian asked sharply. “Who told ye?”
“I did,” Jamie said, before Young Ian could speak. He waved a hand at his brother-in-law, urging silence. “Aye, I kent he was here. We’ll talk about it later, Ian, if ye please. It’s important we know what happened today.”
Ian glared at Jamie and opened his mouth to disagree, then shut it with a snap. He nodded to his son to go on.
“I was hungry, ye see,” Young Ian said.
“When are ye not?” his father and uncle said together, in perfect unison. They looked at each other, snorted with sudden laughter, and the strained atmosphere in the room eased slightly.
“So ye went into the tavern to have a bite,” Jamie said. “That’s all right, lad, no harm done. And what happened while ye were there?”
That, it transpired, was where he had seen the man. A small, ratty-looking fellow, with a seaman’s pigtail, and a blind eye, talking to the landlord.
“He was askin’ for you, Uncle Jamie,” Young Ian said, growing easier in his speech with repeated applications of porter. “By your own name.”
Jamie started, looking surprised. “Jamie Fraser, ye mean?” Young Ian nodded, sipping. “Aye. But he knew your other name as well—Jamie Roy, I mean.”
“Jamie Roy?” Ian turned a puzzled glance on his brother-in-law, who shrugged impatiently.
“It’s how I’m known on the docks. Christ, Ian, ye know what I do!”
“Aye, I do, but I didna ken the wee laddie was helpin’ ye to do it.” Ian’s thin lips pressed tight together, and he turned his attention back to his son. “Go on, lad. I willna interrupt ye again.”
The seaman had asked the tavernkeeper how best an old seadog, down on his luck and looking for employment, might find one Jamie Fraser, who was known to have a use for able men. The landlord pleading ignorance of that name, the seaman had leaned closer, pushed a coin across the table, and in a lowered voice asked whether the name “Jamie Roy” was more familiar.