“Oh, aye,” he said. “Ian’s a good deal too canny to believe it, but it’s a likely enough story, and he’s too good a friend to insist on the truth.”
“I suppose it will do, for general consumption,” I agreed. “But shouldn’t you have told it to Sir Percival, instead of letting him think we were newlyweds?”
He shook his head decidedly. “Och, no. For the one thing, Sir Percival has no notion of my real name, though I’ll lay a year’s takings he knows it isna Malcolm. I dinna want him to be thinking of me and Culloden together, by any means. And for another, a story like the one I gave Ian would cause the devil of a lot more talk than the news that the printer’s taken a wife.”
“‘Oh, what a tangled web we weave,’” I intoned, “‘when first we practice to deceive.’”
He gave me a quick blue glance, and the corner of his mouth lifted slightly.
“It gets a bit easier with practice, Sassenach,” he said. “Try living wi’ me for a time, and ye’ll find yourself spinning silk out of your arse easy as sh—, er, easy as kiss-my-hand.”
I burst out laughing.
“I want to see you do that,” I said.
“You already have.” He stood up and craned his neck, trying to see over the wall into the Rectory garden.
“Young Ian’s being the devil of a time,” he remarked, sitting down again. “How can a lad not yet fifteen have that much to confess?”
“After the day and night he had yesterday? I suppose it depends how much detail Father Hayes wants to hear,” I said, with a vivid recollection of my breakfast with the prostitutes. “Has he been in there all this time?”
“Er, no.” The tips of Jamie’s ears grew slightly pinker in the morning light. “I, er, I had to go first. As an example, ye ken.”
“No wonder it took some time,” I said, teasing. “How long has it been since you’ve been to confession?”
“I told Father Hayes it was six months.”
“And was it?”
“No, but I supposed if he was going to shrive me for thieving, assault, and profane language, he might as well shrive me for lying, too.”
“What, no fornication or impure thoughts?”
“Certainly not,” he said austerely. “Ye can think any manner of horrible things without sin, and it’s to do wi’ your wife. It’s only if you’re thinking it about other ladies, it’s impure.”
“I had no idea I was coming back to save your soul,” I said primly, “but it’s nice to be useful.”
He laughed, bent and kissed me thoroughly.
“I wonder if that counts as an indulgence,” he said, pausing for breath. “It ought to, no? It does a great deal more to keep a man from the fires of hell than saying the rosary does. Speaking of which,” he added, digging into his pocket and coming out with a rather chewed-looking wooden rosary, “remind me that I must say my penance sometime today. I was about to start on it, when ye came up.”
“How many Hail Marys are you supposed to say?” I asked, fingering the beads. The chewed appearance wasn’t illusion; there were definite small toothmarks on most of the beads.
“I met a Jew last year,” he said, ignoring the question. “A natural philosopher, who’d sailed round the world six times. He told me that in both the Musselman faith and the Jewish teachings, it was considered an act of virtue for a man and his wife to lie wi’ each other.
“I wonder if that has anything to do wi’ both Jews and Musselmen being circumcised?” he added thoughtfully. “I never thought to ask him that—though perhaps he would ha’ found it indelicate to say.”
“I shouldn’t think a foreskin more or less would impair the virtue,” I assured him.
“Oh, good,” he said, and kissed me once more.
“What happened to your rosary?” I asked, picking up the string where it had fallen on the grass. “It looks like the rats have been at it.”
“Not rats,” he said. “Bairns.”
“Oh, any that might be about.” He shrugged, tucking the beads back in his pocket. “Young Jamie has three now, and Maggie and Kitty two each. Wee Michael’s just married, but his wife’s breeding.” The sun was behind him, darkening his face, so that his teeth flashed suddenly white when he smiled. “Ye didna ken ye were a great-aunt seven times over, aye?”
“A great-aunt?” I said, staggered.
“Well, I’m a great-uncle,” he said cheerfully, “and I havena found it a terrible trial, except for having my beads gnawed when the weans are cutting teeth—that, and bein’ expected to answer to ‘Nunkie’ a lot.”
Sometimes twenty years seemed like an instant, and sometimes it seemed like a very long time indeed.
“Er…there isn’t a feminine equivalent of ‘Nunkie,’ I hope?”
“Oh, no,” he assured me. “They’ll all call ye Great-Auntie Claire, and treat ye wi’ the utmost respect.”
“Thanks a lot,” I muttered, with visions of the hospital’s geriatric wing fresh in my mind.
Jamie laughed, and with a lightness of heart no doubt engendered by being newly freed from sin, grasped me around the waist and lifted me onto his lap.
“I’ve never before seen a great-auntie wi’ a lovely plump arse like that,” he said with approval, bouncing me slightly on his knees. His breath tickled the back of my neck as he leaned forward. I let out a small shriek as his teeth closed lightly on my ear.
“Are ye all right, Auntie?” said Young Ian’s voice just behind us, full of concern.
Jamie started convulsively, nearly unshipping me from his lap, then tightened his hold on my waist.
“Oh, aye,” he said. “It’s just your auntie saw a spider.”
“Where?” said Young Ian, peering interestedly over the bench.
“Up there.” Jamie rose, standing me on my feet, and pointed to the lime tree, where—sure enough—the web of an orb weaver stretched across the crook of two branches, sparkling with damp. The weaver herself sat in the center, round as a cherry, wearing a gaudy pattern of green and yellow on her back.
“I was telling your auntie,” Jamie said, as Young Ian examined the web in lashless fascination, “about a Jew I met, a natural philosopher. He’d made a study of spiders, it seems; in fact, he was in Edinburgh to deliver a learned paper to the Royal Society, in spite of being a Jew.”
“Really? Did he tell ye a lot about spiders?” Young Ian asked eagerly.
“A lot more than I cared to know,” Jamie informed his nephew. “There are times and places for talkin’ of spiders that lay eggs in caterpillars so the young hatch out and devour the poor beast while it’s still alive, but during supper isna one of them. He did say one thing I thought verra interesting, though,” he added, squinting at the web. He blew gently on it, and the spider scuttled briskly into hiding.
“He said that spiders spin two kinds of silk, and if ye have a lens—and can make the spider sit still for it, I suppose—ye can see the two places where the silk comes out; spinnerets, he called them. In any case, the one kind of silk is sticky, and if a wee bug touches it, he’s done for. But the other kind is dry silk, like the sort ye’d embroider with, but finer.”
The orb weaver was advancing cautiously toward the center of her web again.
“See where she walks?” Jamie pointed to the web, anchored by a number of spokes, supporting the intricate netlike whorl. “The spokes there, those are spun of the dry silk, so the spider can walk over it herself wi’ no trouble. But the rest o’ the web is the sticky kind of silk—or mostly so—and if ye watch a spider careful for quite a long time, you’ll see that she goes only on the dry strands, for if she walked on the sticky stuff, she’d be stuck herself.”
“Is that so?” Ian breathed reverently on the web, watching intently as the spider moved away along her nonskid road to safety.
“I suppose there’s a moral there for web weavers,” Jamie observed to me, sotto voce. “Be sure ye know which of your strands are sticky.”
“I suppose it helps even more if you have the kind of luck that will conjure up a handy spider when you need one,” I said dryly.
He laughed and took my arm.
“That’s not luck, Sassenach,” he told me. “It’s watchfulness. Ian, are ye coming?”
“Oh, aye.” Young Ian abandoned the web with obvious reluctance and followed us to the kirkyard gate.
“Oh, Uncle Jamie, I meant to ask, can I borrow your rosary?” he said, as we emerged onto the cobbles of the Royal Mile. “The priest told me I must say five decades for my penance, and that’s too many to keep count of on my fingers.”
“Surely.” Jamie stopped and fished in his pocket for the rosary. “Be sure to give it back, though.”
Young Ian grinned. “Aye, I reckon you’ll be needing it yourself, Uncle Jamie. The priest told me he was verra wicked,” Young Ian confided to me, with a lashless wink, “and told me not to be like him.”
“Mmphm.” Jamie glanced up and down the road, gauging the speed of an approaching handcart, edging its way down the steep incline. Freshly shaved that morning, his cheeks had a rosy glow about them.
“How many decades of the rosary are you supposed to say as penance?” I asked curiously.
“Eighty-five,” he muttered. The rosiness of his freshly shaved cheeks deepened.
Young Ian’s mouth dropped open in awe.
“How long has it been since ye went to confession, Uncle?” he asked.
“A long time,” Jamie said tersely. “Come on!”
Jamie had an appointment after dinner to meet with a Mr. Harding, representative of the Hand in Hand Assurance Society, which had insured the premises of the printshop, to inspect the ashy remains with him and verify the loss.
“I willna need ye, laddie,” he said reassuringly to Young Ian, who looked less than enthusiastic about the notion of revisiting the scene of his adventures. “You go wi’ your auntie to see this madwoman.”
“I canna tell how ye do it,” he added to me, raising one brow. “You’re in the city less than two days, and all the afflicted folk for miles about are clutching at your hems.”
“Hardly all of them,” I said dryly. “It’s only one woman, after all, and I haven’t even seen her yet.”
“Aye, well. At least madness isna catching—I hope.” He kissed me briefly, then turned to go, clapping Young Ian companionably on the shoulder. “Look after your auntie, Ian.”
Young Ian paused for a moment, looking after the tall form of his departing uncle.
“Do you want to go with him, Ian?” I asked. “I can manage alone, if you—”
“Oh, no, Auntie!” He turned back to me, looking rather abashed. “I dinna want to go, at all. It’s only—I was wondering—well, what if they…find anything? In the ashes?”