Ian and I exchanged smiles. If there was any regret that such feats were now beyond him, it was hidden beneath his pleasure in seeing Jamie’s exuberance.
“It’s good to have him back,” he said.
“I only wish we could stay,” I said, with regret.
The soft brown eyes filled with alarm. “Ye’ll no be going at once, surely?”
I shook my head. “No, not at once. But we’ll need to leave well before the snow comes.” Jamie had decided that our best course was to go to Beauly, seat of clan Fraser. Perhaps his grandfather, Lord Lovat, could be of help; if not, he might at least arrange us passage to France.
Ian nodded, reassured. “Oh, aye. But you’ve a few weeks yet.”
It was a beautiful bright autumn day, with air like cider and a sky so blue you could drown in it. We walked slowly so that I could keep an eye out for late-blooming eglantine and teasel heads, chatting casually.
“It’s Quarter Day next week,” Jamie remarked. “Will your new gown be ready then?”
“I expect so. Why, is it an occasion?”
He smiled down at me, taking the basket while I stooped to pull up a stalk of tansy.
“Oh, in a way. Nothing like Colum’s great affairs, to be sure, but all the Lallybroch tenants will come to pay their rents—and their respects to the new Lady Lallybroch.”
“I expect they’ll be surprised you’ve married an Englishwoman.”
“I reckon there are a few fathers might be disappointed at that; I’d courted a lass or two hereabouts before I got arrested and taken to Fort William.”
“Sorry you didn’t wed a local girl?” I asked coquettishly.
“If ye think I’m going to say ‘yes,’ and you standin’ there holding a pruning knife,” he remarked, “you’ve less opinion of my good sense than I thought.”
I dropped the pruning knife, which I’d taken to dig with, stretched my arms out, and stood waiting. When he released me at last, I stooped to pick up the knife again, saying teasingly, “I always wondered how it was you stayed a virgin so long. Are the girls in Lallybroch all plain, then?”
“No,” he said, squinting up into the morning sun. “It was mostly my father was responsible for that. We’d stroll over the fields in the evenings, sometimes, he and I, and talk about things. And once I got old enough for such a thing to be a possibility, he told me that a man must be responsible for any seed he sows, for it’s his duty to take care of a woman and protect her. And if I wasna prepared to do that, then I’d no right to burden a woman with the consequences of my own actions.”
He glanced behind us, toward the house. And toward the small family graveyard, near the foot of the broch, where his parents were buried.
“He said the greatest thing in a man’s life is to lie wi’ a woman he loves,” he said softly. He smiled at me, eyes blue as the sky overhead. “He was right.”
I touched his face lightly, tracing the broad sweep downward from cheek to jaw.
“Rather hard on you, though, if he expected you to wait so long to marry,” I said.
Jamie grinned, kilt flapping round his knees in the brisk autumn breeze.
“Well, the Church does teach that self-abuse is a sin, but my father said he thought that if it came to a choice between abusin’ yourself or some poor woman, a decent man might choose to make the sacrifice.”
When I stopped laughing, I shook my head and said, “No. No, I won’t ask. You did stay a virgin, though.”
“Strictly by the grace of God and my father, Sassenach. I dinna think I thought much about anything but the lasses, once I turned fourteen or so. But that was when I was sent to foster wi’ Dougal at Beannachd.”
“No girls there?” I asked. “I thought Dougal had daughters.”
“Aye, he has. Four. The two younger are no much to look at, but the eldest was a verra handsome lassie. A year or two older than me, Molly was. And not much flattered by my attention, I dinna think. I used to stare at her across the supper table, and she’d look down her nose at me and ask did I have the catarrh? Because if so, I should go to bed, and if not, she would be much obliged if I’d close my mouth, as she didna care to look at my tonsils while she was eating.”
“I begin to see how you stayed a virgin,” I said, hiking my skirts to climb a stile. “But they can’t all have been like that.”
“No,” he said reflectively, giving me a hand over the stile. “No, they weren’t. Molly’s younger sister, Tabitha, was a bit friendlier.” He smiled reminiscently.
“Tibby was the first girl I kissed. Or perhaps I should say the first girl who kissed me. I was carrying two pails of milk for her, from the barn to the dairy, plotting all the way how I’d get her behind the door, where there wasna room to get away, and kiss her there. But my hands were full, and she had to open the door for me to go through. So it was me ended up behind the door, and Tib who walked up to me, took me by both ears and kissed me. Spilled the milk, too,” he added.
“Sounds a memorable first experience,” I said, laughing.
“I doubt I was her first,” he said, grinning. “She knew a lot more about it than I did. But we didna get much practice; a day or two later, her mother caught us in the pantry. She didna do more than give me a sharpish look and tell Tibby to go and set the table for dinner, but she must have told Dougal about it.”
If Dougal MacKenzie had been quick to resent an insult to his sister’s honor, I could only imagine what he might have done in defense of his daughter’s.
“I shudder to think,” I said, grinning.
“So do I,” said Jamie, shuddering. He shot me a sidelong glance, looking shy.
“You’ll know that young men in the morning, sometimes they wake up with…well, with—” He was blushing.
“Yes, I know,” I said. “So do old men of twenty-three. You think I don’t notice? You’ve brought it to my attention often enough.”
“Mmmphm. Well, the morning after Tib’s mother caught us, I woke up just at dawn. I’d been dreaming about her—Tib, I mean, not her mother—and I wasna surprised to feel a hand on my cock. What was surprising was that it wasn’t mine.”
“Surely it wasn’t Tibby’s?”
“Well, no, it wasna. It was her father’s.”
“Well, I opened my eyes wide and he smiled down at me, verra pleasant. And then he sat on the bed and we had a nice little chat, uncle and nephew, foster-father to foster-son. He said how much he was enjoying my being there, him not having a son of his own, and all that. And how his family was all so fond of me, and all. And how he would hate to think that there might be any advantage taken of such fine, innocent feelings as his daughters might have toward me, but how of course he was so pleased that he could trust me as he would his own son.”
“And all the time he was talking and me lying there, he had his one hand on his dirk, and the other resting on my fine young balls. So I said yes, Uncle, and no, Uncle, and when he left, I rolled myself up in the quilt and dreamed about pigs. And I didna kiss a girl again until I was sixteen, and went to Leoch.”
He looked over at me, smiling. His hair was laced back with a leather thong, but the shorter ends were sticking up at the crown as usual, glimmering red and gold in the brisk, clear air. His skin had darkened to a golden bronze during our journey from Leoch and Craigh na Dun, and he looked like an autumn leaf, swirling joyfully wind-borne.
“And what of you, my bonny Sassenach?” he asked, grinning. “Did ye have the wee laddies panting at your heels, or were ye shy and maidenly?”
“A bit less than you,” I said circumspectly. “I was eight.”
“Jezebel. Who was the lucky lad?”
“The dragoman’s son. That was in Egypt. He was nine.”
“Och, well, you’re no to blame then. Led astray by an older man. And a bloody heathen, no less.”
The mill came into sight below, picture-pretty, with a deep-red vine glowing up the side of the yellow plaster wall, and shutters standing open to the daylight, tidy in spite of the worn green paint. The water gushed happily down the sluice under the idle water-wheel into the millpond. There were even ducks on the pond, teal and goldeneye paused for a rest on their southern flight.
“Look,” I said, pausing at the top of the hill, putting a hand on Jamie’s arm to stop him. “Isn’t it lovely?”
“Be a sight more lovely if the water-wheel were turnin’,” he said practically. Then he glanced down at me and smiled.
“Aye, Sassenach. It’s a bonny place. I used to swim here when I was a lad—there’s a wide pool round the bend of the stream.”
A little further down the hill, the pool became visible through the screen of willows. So did the boys. There were four of them, sporting and splashing and yelling, all nak*d as jays.
“Brrr,” I said, watching them. The weather was fine for autumn, but there was enough of a nip in the air to make me glad of the shawl I’d brought. “It makes my blood run cold, just to see them.”
“Och?” Jamie said. “Well, let me warm it for ye then.”
With a glance down at the boys in the stream, he stepped back into the shade of a big horse chestnut tree. He put his hands about my waist and drew me into the shadow after him.
“Ye werena the first lass I kissed,” he said softly. “But I swear you’ll be the last.” And he bent his head to my upturned face.
Once the miller had emerged from his lair, and hasty introductions were made, I retired to the bank of the millpond, while Jamie spent several minutes listening to an explanation of the problem. As the miller went back into the millhouse, to try turning the stone from within, Jamie stood a moment, staring into the dark, weedy depths of the millpond. Finally, with a shrug of resignation, he began to strip off his clothes.
“No help for it,” he remarked to me. “Ian’s right; there’s something stuck in the wheel under the sluice. I’ll have to go down and—” Stopped by my gasp, he turned around to where I sat on the bank with my basket.
“And what’s amiss wi’ you?” he demanded. “Have ye no seen a man in his drawers before?”
“Not…not like…that!” I managed to get out, between sputters. Anticipating possible submergence, he had donned beneath his kilt a short garment of incredible elderliness, originally of red flannel, now patched with a dazzling array of colors and textures. Obviously, this pair of drawers had originally belonged to someone who measured several inches more around the middle than Jamie. They hung precariously from his hipbones, the folds drooping in V’s over his flat belly.
“Your grandfather’s?” I guessed, making a highly unsuccessful effort to suppress my giggling. “Or your grandmother’s?”
“My father’s,” he said coldly, looking down his nose at me. “Ye dinna expect me to be swimming bare as an egg before my wife and my tenants, do ye?”
With considerable dignity, he gathered the excess material up in one hand and waded into the millpond. Treading water near the wheel, he took his bearings, then with a deep breath, upended and submerged, my last sight of him the ballooning bottom of the red flannel drawers. The miller, leaning out of the millhouse window, shouted encouragement and directions whenever the sleek wet head broke the surface for air.
The edge of the pond bank was thick with water plants, and I foraged with my digging stick for mallow root and the small, fine-leaved dropwort. I had half the basket filled when I heard a polite cough behind me.
She was a very old lady indeed, or at least she looked it. She leaned on a hawthorn stick, enveloped in garments she must have worn twenty years before, now much too voluminous for the shrunken frame inside them.
“Good morn to ye,” she said, nodding a head like a bobbin. She wore a starched white kertch that hid most of her hair, but a few wisps of iron-grey peeped out beside cheeks like withered apples.
“Good morning,” I said, and started to scramble up, but she advanced a few steps and sank down beside me with surprising grace. I hoped she could get up again.
“I’m—” I started, but had barely opened my mouth when she interrupted.
“Ye’ll be the new lady, o’ course. I’m Mrs. MacNab—Grannie MacNab, they call me, along o’ my daughters-in-law all bein’ Mrs. MacNabs as weel.” She reached out a skinny hand and pulled my basket toward her, peering into it.
“Mallow root—ah, that’s good for cough. But ye dinna want to use that one, lassie.” She poked at a small brownish tuber. “Looks like lily root, but it isna that.”
“What is it?” I asked.
“Adder’s-tongue. Eat that one, lassie, and ye’ll be rollin’ round the room wi’ your heels behind yer head.” She plucked the tuber from the basket and threw it into the pond with a splash. She pulled the basket onto her lap and pawed expertly through the remaining plants, while I watched with a mixture of amusement and irritation. At last, satisfied, she handed it back.
“Weel, you’re none sae foolish, for a Sassenach lassie,” she remarked. “Ye ken betony from lamb’s-quarters, at least.” She cast a glance toward the pond, where Jamie’s head appeared briefly, sleek as a seal, before disappearing once again beneath the millhouse. “I see his lairdship didna wed ye for your face alone.”
“Thank you,” I said, choosing to construe this as a compliment. The old lady’s eyes, sharp as needles, were fastened on my midsection.
“Not wi’ child yet?” she demanded. “Raspberry leaves, that’s the thing. Steep a handful wi’ rosehips and drink it when the moon’s waxing, from the quarter to the full. Then when it wanes from the full to the half, take a bit o’ barberry to purge your womb.”
“Oh,” I said, “well—”
“I’d a bit of a favor to ask his lairdship,” the old lady went on. “But as I see he’s a bit occupied at present, I’ll tell you about it.”
“All right,” I agreed weakly, not seeing how I could stop her anyway.
“It’s my grandson,” she said, fixing me with small grey eyes the size and shininess of marbles. “My grandson Rabbie, that is; I’ve sixteen altogether, and the three o’ them named Robert, but the one’s Bob and t’other Rob, and the wee one’s Rabbie.”
“Congratulations,” I said politely.
“I want his lairdship to take the lad on as stable lad,” she went on.
“Well, I can’t say—”
“It’s his father, ye ken,” she said, leaning forward confidentially. “Not as I’ll say there’s aught wrong wi’ a bit o’ firmness; spare the rod and spoil the child, I’ve said often enough, and the good Lord kens weel enough that boys were meant to be smacked, or he’d not ha’ filled ’em sae full o’ the de’il. But when it comes to layin’ a child out on the hearth, and a bruise on his face the size o’ my hand, and for naught more than takin’ an extra bannock from the platter, then—”
“Rabbie’s father beats him, you mean?” I interrupted.
The old lady nodded, pleased with my ready intelligence. “To be sure. Is that no what I’ve been sayin’?” She held up a hand. “Now, in the regular way, o’ course I’d not interfere. A man’s son’s his ain to do as he sees fit wi’, but…weel, Rabbie’s a bit of a favorite o’ mine. And it’s no the lad’s fault as his father’s a drunken sot, shameful as ’tis for his own mither to say such a thing.”
She raised an admonitory finger like a stick. “Not but what Ronald’s father didna take a drop too much from time to time. But lay a hand on me or the bairns he never did—not after the first time, at any rate,” she added thoughtfully. She twinkled suddenly at me, little cheeks round and firm as summer apples, so I could see what a very lively and attractive girl she must have been.
“He struck me the once,” she confided, “and I snatched the girdle off the fire and crowned him wi’ it.” She rocked back and forth, laughing. “Thought I’d kilt him for sure, and me wailin’ and holdin’ of his heid in my lap, thinkin’ what would I do, a widow wi’ twa bairns to feed? But he came round,” she said matter-of-factly, “and ne’er laid a hand on me or the bairnies again. I bore thirteen, ye ken,” she said proudly. “And raised ten.”
“Congratulations,” I said, meaning it.
“Raspberry leaves,” she said, laying a confiding hand on my knee. “Mark me, lassie, raspberry leaves will do it. And if not, come to see me, and I’ll make ye a bittie drink o’ coneflower and marrow seed, wi’ a raw egg beaten up in it. That’ll draw yer man’s seed straight up into the womb, ye ken, and you’ll be swellin’ like a pumpkin by Easter.”
I coughed, growing a bit red in the face. “Mmmphm. And you want Jamie, er, his lairdship I mean, to take your grandson into his house as stable lad, to get him away from his father?”
“Aye, that’s it. Now he’s a brankie wee worker, is Rabbie, and his lairdship will no be—”
The old lady’s face froze in the midst of her animated conversation. I turned to look over my shoulder, and froze as well. Redcoats. Dragoons, six of them, on horseback, making their way carefully down the hill toward the millhouse.
With admirable presence of mind, Mrs. MacNab stood up and sat down again on top of Jamie’s discarded clothes, her spreading skirts hiding everything.
There was a splash and an explosive gasp from the millpond behind me as Jamie surfaced again. I was afraid to call out or move, for fear of attracting the dragoons’ attention to the pond, but the sudden dead silence behind me told me he had seen them. The silence was broken by a single word traveling across the water, softly spoken, but heartfelt in its sincerity.
“Merde,” he said.
The old lady and I sat unmoving, stone-faced, watching the soldiers come down the hill. At the last moment, as they made the final turn around the mill-house path, she turned swiftly to me and laid a stick-straight finger across her withered lips. I mustn’t speak and let them hear that I was English. I didn’t have time even to nod in acknowledgment before the mud-caked hooves came to a halt a few feet away.