“Oh, I expect you’ve something to do with it. But she’d take it out of him whether you were here or not. She loves Jamie something fierce, ye know, and she worried a lot while he was gone, especially with her father goin’ so sudden. Ye’ll know about that?” The brown eyes were sharp and observant, as though to gauge the depth of confidence between me and Jamie.
“Yes, Jamie told me.”
“Ah.” He nodded toward the house. “Then, of course, she’s wi’ child.”
“Yes, I noticed that too,” I said.
“Hard to miss, is it no?” Ian answered with a grin, and we both laughed. “Makes her frachetty,” he explained, “not that I’d blame her. But it would take a braver man than me to cross words wi’ a woman in her ninth month.” He leaned back, stretching his wooden leg out in front of him.
“Lost it at Daumier with Fergus nic Leodhas,” he explained. “Grape shot. Aches a wee bit toward the end of the day.” He rubbed the flesh just above the leather cuff that attached the peg to his stump.
“Have you tried rubbing it with Balm of Gilead?” I asked. “Water-pepper or stewed rue might help too.”
“I’ve not tried the water-pepper,” he answered, interested. “I’ll ask Jenny does she know how to make it.”
“Oh, I’d be glad to make it for you,” I said, liking him. I looked toward the house again. “If we stay long enough,” I added doubtfully. We chatted inconsequentially for a little, both listening with one ear to the confrontation going on beyond the window, until Ian hitched forward, carefully settling his artificial limb under him before rising.
“I imagine we should go in now. If either of them stops shouting long enough to hear the other, they’ll be hurting each other’s feelings.”
“I hope that’s all they hurt.”
Ian chuckled. “Oh, I dinna think Jamie would strike her. He’s used to forbearance in the face of provocation. As for Jenny, she might slap his face, but that’s all.”
“She already did that.”
“Weel, the guns are locked up, and all the knives are in the kitchen, except what Jamie’s wearing. And I don’t suppose he’ll let her close enough to get his dirk away from him. Nay, they’re safe enough.” He paused at the door. “Now, as for you and me…” He winked solemnly. “That’s a different matter.”
Inside, the maids started and flitted nervously away at Ian’s approach. The housekeeper, though, was still hovering by the drawing room door in fascination, drinking in the scene within, Jamie’s namesake cradled against her capacious bosom. Such was her concentration that when Ian spoke to her, she jumped as though he had run a hatpin into her, and put a hand to her palpitating heart.
Ian nodded politely to her, took the little boy in his arms, and led the way into the drawing room. We paused just inside the door to survey the scene. Brother and sister had paused for breath, both still bristling and glaring like a pair of angry cats.
Small Jamie, spotting his mother, struggled and kicked to get down from Ian’s arms, and once on the floor, made for her like a homing pigeon. “Mama!” he cried. “Up! Jamie up!” Turning, she scooped up the little boy and held him like a weapon against her shoulder.
“Can ye tell your uncle how old ye are, sweetheart?” she asked him, throttling her voice down to a coo—under which the sound of clashing steel was still all too apparent. The boy heard it; he turned and burrowed his face into his mother’s neck. She patted his back mechanically, still glaring at her brother.
“Since he’ll not tell ye, I will. He’s two, come last August. And if you’re bright enough to count—which I take leave to doubt—you’ll see he was conceived six months past the time I last saw yon Randall, which was in our own dooryard, beating the living daylight out of my brother with a saber.”
“That’s so, is it?” Jamie glowered at his sister. “I’ve heard a bit differently. It’s common knowledge you’ve taken the man to your bed; not the once, but as your lover. That child’s his.” He nodded contemptuously at his namesake, who had turned to peer under his mother’s chin at this big, loud stranger. “I believe ye when ye say the new bastard you’re carrying is not; Randall was in France ’til this March. So you’re not only a whore, but an unchoosy one too. Who fathered this last devil’s-spawn on ye?”
The tall young man beside me coughed apologetically, breaking the tension in the room.
“I did,” he said mildly. “That one too.” Advancing stiffly on his wooden leg, he took the little boy from his fuming wife and set him in the crook of his arm. “Favors me a bit, some say.”
In fact, seen side by side, the faces of man and boy were nearly identical, allowing for the round cheeks of the one and the crooked nose of the other. The same high brow and narrow lips. The same feathery brows arched over the same deep, liquid-brown eyes. Jamie, staring at the pair of them, looked rather as though he’d been hit in the small of the back with a sandbag. He closed his mouth and swallowed once, clearly having no idea what to do next.
“Ian,” he said, a little weakly. “You’re married, then?”
“Oh, aye,” his brother-in-law said cheerfully. “Wouldn’t do, otherwise, would it?”
“I see,” Jamie murmured. He cleared his throat and bobbed his head at his newly discovered brother-in-law. “It’s, er, it’s kind of ye, Ian. To take her, I mean. Most kind.”
Feeling that he might be in need of some moral support at this point, I moved to Jamie’s side, and touched his arm. His sister’s eyes lingered on me speculatively, but she said nothing. Jamie looked around and seemed startled to find me there, as though he had forgotten my existence. And no wonder if he had, I thought. But he seemed relieved by the interruption, at least, and put out a hand to draw me forward.
“My wife,” he said, rather abruptly. He nodded toward Jenny and Ian. “My sister, and, her, ah…” he trailed off, as Ian and I exchanged polite smiles.
Jenny was not to be distracted by social niceties.
“What d’ye mean, it’s kind of him to take me?” she demanded, ignoring the introductions. “As if I didna ken!” Ian looked inquiringly at her, and she waved a disdainful hand at Jamie. “He means it was kind of ye to wed me in my soiled condition!” She gave a snort that would have done credit to someone twice her size. “Bletherer!”
“Soiled condition?” Ian looked startled, and Jamie suddenly leaned forward and grasped his sister hard about the upper arm.
“Did ye not tell him about Randall?” He sounded truly shocked. “Jenny, how could ye do such a thing?”
Only Ian’s hand on Jenny’s other arm restrained her from flying at her brother’s throat. Ian drew her firmly behind him, and turning, set small Jamie in her arms, so that she was forced to grasp the child to save him falling. Then Ian put an arm about Jamie’s shoulders and tactfully steered him a safe distance away.
“It’s hardly a matter for the drawing room,” he said, low-voiced and deprecating, “but ye might be interested to know that your sister was virgin on her wedding night. I was, after all, in a position to say.”
Jenny’s wrath was now more or less evenly divided between brother and husband.
“How dare ye to say such things in my presence, Ian Murray!?” she flamed. “Or out of it, either! My wedding night’s no one’s business but mine and yours—sure it’s not his! Next you’ll be showing him the sheets from my bridal bed!”
“Weel, if I did now, it would shut him up, no?” said Ian soothingly. “Come now, mi dhu, ye shouldna worrit yourself, it’s bad for the babe. And the shouting troubles wee Jamie too.” He reached out for his son, who was whimpering, not sure yet whether the situation required tears. Ian jerked his head at me and rolled an eye in Jamie’s direction.
Taking my cue, I grabbed Jamie by the arm and dragged him to an armchair in a neutral corner. Ian had Jenny likewise installed on the loveseat, a firm arm across her shoulders to keep her in place.
“Now, then.” In spite of his unassuming manner, Ian Murray had an undeniable authority. I had my hand on Jamie’s shoulder, and could feel the tension begin to go out of it.
I thought that the room looked a bit like the ring of a boxing match, with the fighters twitching restlessly in the corners, each awaiting the signal for action under the soothing hand of a manager.
Ian nodded at his brother-in-law, smiling. “Jamie. It’s good to see ye, man. We’re pleased you’re home, and your wife with ye. Are we not, mi dhu?” he demanded of Jenny, his fingers tightening perceptibly on her shoulder.
She was not one to be forced into anything. Her lips compressed into a thin tight line, as though forming a seal, then opened reluctantly to let one word escape.
“Depends,” she said, and shut them tight again.
Jamie rubbed a hand over his face, then raised his head, ready for a fresh round.
“I saw ye go into the house with Randall,” he said stubbornly. “And from things he said to me later—how comes he to know you’ve a mole on your breast, then?”
She snorted violently. “Do ye remember all that went on that day, or did the Captain beat it out of ye wi’ his saber?”
“Of course I remember! I’m no likely to forget it!”
“Then perhaps you’ll remember that I gave the Captain a fair jolt in the crutch wi’ my knee at one point in the proceedings?”
Jamie hunched his shoulders, wary. “Aye, I remember.”
Jenny smiled in a superior manner.
“Weel then, if your wife here—ye could tell me her name at least, Jamie, I swear you’ve no manners at all—anyway, if she was to give ye similar treatment—and richly you deserve it, I might add—d’ye think you’d be able to perform your husbandly duties a few minutes later?”
Jamie, who had been opening his mouth to speak, suddenly shut it. He stared at his sister for a long moment, then one corner of his mouth twitched slightly.
“Depends,” he said. The mouth twitched again. He had been sitting hunched forward in his chair, but sat back now, looking at her with the half-skeptical expression of a younger brother listening to a sister’s fairy tales, feeling himself too old to be amazed, but half-believing still against his will.
“Really?” he said.
Jenny turned to Ian. “Go and fetch the sheets, Ian,” she ordered.
Jamie raised both hands in surrender. “No. No, I believe ye. It’s just, the way he acted after…”
Jenny sat back, relaxed in the curve of Ian’s arm, her son cuddling as close as the bulk of her belly would permit, gracious in victory.
“Weel, after all he’d said outside, he could hardly admit in front of his own men to being incapable, now could he? He’d have to seem as though he’d done as he promised, no? And,” she admitted, “I’ll have to say the man was verra unpleasant about it all; he did strike me and tear my gown. In fact, he knocked me half-senseless trying, and by the time I’d come to myself and got decently covered again, the English had gone, taking you along with them.”
Jamie gave a long sigh and closed his eyes briefly. His broad hands rested on his knees, and I covered one of them with a gentle squeeze. He took my hand and opened his eyes, giving me a faint smile of acknowledgment before turning back to his sister.
“All right,” he said. “But I want to know, Jenny; did ye know when ye went with him that he’d not harm you?”
She was silent for a moment, but her gaze was steady on her brother’s face, and at last she shook her head, a slight smile on her lips.
She put out a hand to stop Jamie’s protest, and the gull-winged brows rose in a graceful arc of inquiry. “And if your life is a suitable exchange for my honor, tell me why my honor is not a suitable exchange for your life?” The brows drew together in a scowl, the twin of the one adorning her brother’s face. “Or are you telling me that I may not love you as much as you love me? Because if ye are, Jamie Fraser, I’ll tell ye right now, it’s not true!”
Opening his mouth to reply before she was finished, Jamie was taken suddenly at a loss by this conclusion. He closed his mouth abruptly as his sister pressed her advantage.
“Because I do love ye, for all you’re a thick-headed, slack-witted, lack-brained gomerel. And I’ll no have ye dead in the road at my feet just because you’re too stubborn to keep your mouth shut for the once in your life!”
Blue eyes glared into blue eyes, shooting sparks in all directions. Swallowing the insults with difficulty, Jamie struggled for a rational reply. He seemed to be making up his mind to something. Finally he squared his shoulders, resigned to it.
“All right, then, I’m sorry,” he said. “I was wrong, and I’ll beg your pardon.”
He and his sister sat staring at each other for a long moment, but whatever pardon he was expecting from her was not forthcoming. She examined him closely, biting her lip, but said nothing. Finally he grew impatient.
“I’ve said I’m sorry! What more d’ye want of me?” he demanded. “Do ye want me to go on my knees to ye? I’ll do it if I must, but tell me!”
She shook her head slowly, lip still caught between her teeth.
“No,” she said at last, “I’ll not have ye on your knees in your own house. Stand up, though.”
Jamie stood, and she set the child down on the loveseat and crossed the room to stand in front of him.
“Take off your shirt,” she ordered.
She jerked the shirttail out of his kilt and reached for the buttons. Short of forcible resistance, clearly he was going to obey or submit to being undressed. Retaining as much dignity as he could, he backed away from her, and tightlipped, removed the disputed garment.
She circled behind him and surveyed his back, her face displaying the same carefully blank expression I had seen Jamie adopt when concealing some strong emotion. She nodded, as though confirming something long suspected.
“Weel, and if you’ve been a fool, Jamie, it seems you’ve paid for it.” She laid her hand gently on his back, covering the worst of the scars.
“It looks as though it hurt.”
“Did you cry?”
His fists clenched involuntarily at his sides. “Yes!”
Jenny walked back around to face him, pointed chin lifted and slanted eyes wide and bright. “So did I,” she said softly. “Every day since they took ye away.”
The broad-cheeked faces were once more mirrors of each other, but the expression that they wore was such that I rose and stepped quietly through the kitchen door to leave them alone. As the door swung to behind me, I saw Jamie catch hold of his sister’s hands and say something huskily in Gaelic. She stepped into his embrace, and the rough bright head bent to the dark.
THE LAST REASON
We ate like wolves at dinner, retired to a large, airy bedroom, and slept like logs. The sun would have been high by the time we rose in the morning, save that the sky was covered in clouds. I could tell it was late by the bustling feel of the house, as of people going cheerfully about their business, and by the tempting aromas that drifted up the stairs.
After breakfast the men prepared to go out, visiting tenants, inspecting fences, mending wagons, and generally enjoying themselves. As they paused in the hall to don their coats, Ian spotted Jenny’s large basket resting on the table beneath the hall mirror.
“Shall I fetch home some apples from the orchard, Jenny? ’Twould save ye walking so far.”
“Good idea,” said Jamie, casting an appraising eye at his sister’s expansive frontage. “We dinna want her to drop it in the road.”
“I’ll drop you where ye stand, Jamie Fraser,” she retorted, calmly holding up the coat for Ian to shrug into. “Be useful for the once, and take this wee fiend outside wi’ ye. Mrs. Crook’s in the washhouse; ye can leave him there.” She moved her foot, dislodging small Jamie, who was clinging to her skirts, chanting “up, up” monotonously.
His uncle obediently grabbed the wee fiend around the middle and swept him out the door, upside down and shrieking with delight. “Ah,” Jenny sighed contentedly, bending to inspect her appearance in the gold-framed mirror. She wet a finger and smoothed her brows, then finished doing up the buttons at her throat. “Nice to finish dressing wi’out someone clinging to your skirts or wrapped round your knees. Some days I can scarce go to the privy alone, or speak a single sentence wi’out being interrupted.”
Her cheeks were slightly flushed, and her dark hair gleamed against the blue silk of her dress. Ian smiled at her, warm brown eyes glowing at the blooming picture she presented.
“Weel, you’ll have time to talk wi’ Claire, perhaps,” he suggested. He cocked one eyebrow in my direction. “I expect she’s mannerly enough to listen, but for God’s sake, dinna tell her any of your poems, or she’ll be on the next coach to London before Jamie and I get back.”
Jenny snapped her fingers under his nose, unperturbed by the teasing.
“I’m none too worried, man. There’s no coach going before next April, and I reckon she’ll be used to us by that time. Get on wi’ ye; Jamie’s waiting.”
While the men went about their business, Jenny and I spent the day in the parlor, she stitching, I winding up stray bits of yarn and sorting the colored silks.
Outwardly friendly, we circled each other cautiously in conversation, watching each other from the corners of our eyes. Jamie’s sister, Jamie’s wife; Jamie was the central point, unspoken, about which our thoughts revolved.
Their shared childhood linked them forever, like the warp and the weft of a single fabric, but the patterns of their weave had been loosened, by absence and suspicion, then by marriage. Ian’s thread had been present in their weaving since the beginning, mine was a new one. How would the tensions pull in this new pattern, one thread against another?
Our conversation ran on casual lines, but with the words unspoken clearly heard beneath.
“You’ve run the house here alone since your mother died?”
“Oh, aye. Since I was ten.”