“Good morrow to you, ladies,” said the leader. He was a corporal, but not, I was pleased to see, Corporal Hawkins. A quick glance showed me that none of the men were among those I had seen at Fort William, and I relaxed my grip on the handle of my basket just a fraction.
“We saw the mill from above,” the dragoon said, “and thought perhaps to purchase a sack of meal?” He divided a bow between us, not sure who to address.
Mrs. MacNab was frosty, but polite.
“Good morrow,” she said, inclining her head. “But if ye’ve come for meal, I fear me ye’ll be sair disappointit. The mill wheel’s nae workin’ just now. Perhaps next time ye come this way.”
“Oh? What’s amiss, then?” The corporal, a short young man with a fresh complexion, seemed interested. He walked down to the edge of the pond to peer at the wheel. The miller, popping up in the mill to report the latest progress with the millstone, saw him and hastily popped back down out of sight.
The corporal called to one of his men. Climbing up the slope, he gestured to the other soldier, who obligingly stooped to let the corporal climb on his back. Reaching up, he managed to catch the edge of the roof with both hands, and squirmed up onto the thatch. Standing, he could barely reach the edge of the great wheel. He reached out and rocked it with both hands. Bending down, he shouted through the window to the miller to try turning the millstone by hand.
I willed myself to keep my eyes away from the bottom of the sluice. I wasn’t sufficiently familiar with the workings of waterwheels to know for sure, but I was afraid that if the wheel gave way suddenly, anything near the underwater works might be crushed. Apparently this was no idle fear, for Mrs. MacNab spoke sharply to one of the soldiers near us.
“Ye should ca’ your master doon now, laddie. He’ll do no good tae the mill or himsel’. Ye shouldna meddle wi’ things as ye dinna understand.”
“Oh, you’ve no cause for worry, missus,” said the soldier casually. “Corporal Silvers’s father has a wheat mill in Hampshire. What the Corporal doesn’t know about waterwheels would fit in me shoe.”
Mrs. MacNab and I exchanged looks of alarm. The corporal, after a bit more clambering up and down and exploratory rockings and pokings, came down to where we sat. He was perspiring freely, and wiped his red face with a large, grubby handkerchief before addressing us.
“I can’t move it from above, and that fool of a miller doesn’t seem to speak any English at all.” He glanced at Mrs. MacNab’s sturdy stick and gnarled limbs, then at me. “Perhaps the young lady could come and talk to him for me?”
Mrs. MacNab stretched out a protective hand, gripping me by the sleeve.
“Ye’ll hae to pardon my daughter-in-law, sorr. She’s gone sair saft in the heid, ever syne her last babe was stillborn. Hasna spoke a word in ower a year, puir lassie. And I canna leave her for a minute, for fear she’ll throw hersel’ intae the water in her grief.”
I did my best to look soft-headed, no great effort in my present state of mind.
The corporal looked disconcerted. “Oh,” he said. “Well…” He wandered down to the edge of the pond and stood frowning into the water. He looked just as Jamie had an hour before, and apparently for the same reason.
“No help for it, Collins,” he said to the old trooper. “I’ll have to go under and see what’s holding it.” He took off his scarlet coat and began to unfasten the cuffs of his shirt. I exchanged looks of horror with Mrs. MacNab. While there might be sufficient air under the millhouse for survival, certainly there was not room to hide very effectively.
I was considering, not very optimistically, the chances of throwing a convincing epileptic fit, when the great wheel suddenly creaked overhead. With a sound like a tree being murdered, the big arc made a swooping half-turn, stuck for a moment, then rolled into a steady revolution, scoops merrily pouring bright streamlets into the sluice.
The corporal paused in his undressing, admiring the arc of the wheel.
“Look at that, Collins! Wonder what was stuck in it?”
As though in answer, something came into sight at the top of the wheel. It hung from one of the scoops, sodden red folds dripping. The scoop hit the stream now churning down the sluice, the object came loose, and Jamie’s father’s erstwhile drawers floated majestically out onto the waters of the millpond.
The elderly trooper fished them out with a stick, presenting them gingerly to his commander, who plucked them off the stick like a man obliged to pick up a dead fish.
“Hm,” he said, holding up the garment critically. “Wonder where on earth that came from? Must have been caught around the shaft. Curious that something like that could cause so much trouble, isn’t it, Collins?”
“Yessir.” The trooper plainly did not consider the interior workings of a Scottish mill wheel to be of absorbing interest, but answered politely.
After turning the cloth over a time or two, the corporal shrugged, and used it to wipe the dirt from his hands.
“Decent bit of flannel,” he said, wringing out the sopping cloth. “It’ll do to polish tack, at least. Something of a souvenir, eh, Collins?” And with a polite bow to Mrs. MacNab and me, he turned to his horse.
The dragoons had barely disappeared from sight over the brow of the hill when a splashing from the millpond heralded the rising from the depths of the resident water sprite.
He was the bloodless white, blue-tinged, of Carrara marble, and his teeth chattered so hard that I could barely make out his first words, which were, in any case, in Gaelic.
Mrs. MacNab had no trouble making them out, and her ancient jaw dropped. She snapped it shut, though, and made a low reverence toward the emergent laird. Seeing her, he stopped his progress toward the shore, the water still lapping modestly about his hips. He took a deep breath, clenching his teeth to stop the chattering, and plucked a streamer of duckweed off his shoulder.
“Mrs. MacNab,” he said, bowing to his elderly tenant.
“Sir,” she said, bowing back once again. “A fine day, is it no?”
“A bit b-brisk,” he said, casting an eye at me. I shrugged helplessly.
“We’re pleased to see ye back in yer home, sir, and it’s our hope, the lads and mysel’, as you’ll soon be back to stay.”
“Mine too, Mrs. MacNab,” Jamie said courteously. He jerked his head at me, glaring. I smiled blandly.
The old lady, ignoring this byplay, folded her gnarled hands in her lap and settled back with dignity.
“I’ve a wee favor I was wishin’ to ask of your lairdship,” she began, “havin’ tae do wi’—”
“Grannie MacNab,” Jamie interrupted, advancing a menacing half-step through the water, “whatever your wish is, I’ll do it. Provided only that ye’ll give me back my shirt before my parts fall off wi’ cold.”
In the evenings, when supper was cleared away, we generally sat in the drawing room with Jenny and Ian, talking companionably of this and that, or listening to Jenny’s stories.
Tonight, though, it was my turn, and I held Jenny and Ian rapt as I told them about Mrs. MacNab and the Redcoats.
“God kens well enough that boys need to be smacked, or he’d no fill them sae full o’ the de’il.” My imitation of Grannie MacNab brought down the house.
Jenny wiped tears of laughter from her eyes.
“Lord, it’s true enough. And she’d know it too. What has she got, Ian, eight boys?”
Ian nodded. “Aye, at least. I canna even remember all their names; seemed like there was always a couple of MacNabs about to hunt or fish or swim with, when Jamie and I were younger.”
“You grew up together?” I asked. Jamie and Ian exchanged wide, complicitous grins.
“Oh, aye, we’re familiar,” Jamie said, laughing. “Ian’s father was the factor for Lallybroch, like Ian is now. On a number of occasions during my reckless youth, I’ve found myself standing elbow to elbow with Mr. Murray there, explaining to one or other of our respective fathers how appearances can be deceiving, or failing that, why circumstances alter cases.”
“And failin’ that,” said Ian, “I’ve found myself on the same number of occasions, bent over a fence rail alongside Mr. Fraser there, listenin’ to him yell his heid off while waitin’ for my own turn.”
“Never!” replied Jamie indignantly. “I never yelled.”
“Ye call it what ye like, Jamie,” his friend answered, “but ye were awful loud.”
“Ye could hear the both of ye for miles,” Jenny interjected. “And not only the yelling. Ye could hear Jamie arguing all the time, right up to the fence.”
“Aye, ye should ha’ been a lawyer, Jamie. But I dinna ken why I always let you do the talking,” said Ian, shaking his head. “You always got us in worse trouble than we started.”
Jamie began to laugh again. “You mean the broch?”
“I do.” Ian turned to me, motioning toward the west, where the ancient stone tower rose from the hill behind the house.
“One of Jamie’s better arguments, that was,” he said, rolling his eyes upward. “He told Brian it was uncivilized to use physical force in order to make your point of view prevail. Corporal punishment was barbarous, he said, and old-fashioned, to boot. Thrashing someone just because they had committed an act with whose ram-ramifications, that was it—with whose ramifications ye didn’t agree was not at a’ a constructive form of punishment.…”
All of us were laughing by this time.
“Did Brian listen to all of this?” I asked.
“Oh, aye.” Ian nodded. “I just stood there wi’ Jamie, nodding whenever he’d stop for breath. When Jamie finally ran out of words, his father sort of coughed a bit and said ‘I see.’ Then he turned and looked out of the window for a little, swinging the strap and nodding his head, as though he were thinking. We were standing there, elbow to elbow like Jamie said, sweating. At last Brian turned about and told us to follow him to the stables.”
“He gave us each a broom, a brush, and a bucket, and pointed us in the direction of the broch,” said Jamie, taking up the story. “Said I’d convinced him of my point, so he’d decided on a more ‘constructive’ form of punishment.”
Ian’s eyes rolled slowly up, as though following the rough stones of the broch upward.
“That tower rises sixty feet from the ground,” he told me, “and it’s thirty feet in diameter, wi’ three floors.” He heaved a sigh. “We swept it from the top to the bottom,” he said, “and scrubbed it from the bottom to the top. It took five days, and I can taste rotted oat-straw when I cough, even now.”
“And you tried to kill me on the third day,” said Jamie, “for getting us into that.” He touched his head gingerly. “I had a wicked gash over my ear, where ye hit me wi’ the broom.”
“Oh, weel,” Ian said comfortably, “that was when ye broke my nose the second time, so we were even.”
“Trust a Murray to keep score,” Jamie said, shaking his head.
“Let’s see,” I said, counting on my fingers. “According to you, Frasers are stubborn, Campbells are sneaky, MacKenzies are charming but sly, and Grahams are stupid. What’s the Murrays’ distinguishing characteristic?”
“Ye can count on them in a fight,” said Jamie and Ian together, then laughed.
“Ye can too,” said Jamie, recovering. “You just hope they’re on your side.” And both men went off into fits again.
Jenny shook her head disapprovingly at spouse and brother.
“And we havena even had any wine yet,” she said. She put down her sewing and heaved herself to her feet. “Come wi’ me, Claire; we’ll see has Mrs. Crook made any biscuits to have wi’ the port.”
Coming back down the hall a quarter of an hour later with trays of refreshments, I heard Ian say, “You’ll not mind then, Jamie?”
“That we wed without your consent—me and Jenny, I mean.”
Jenny, walking ahead of me, came to a sudden stop outside the drawing room door.
There was a brief snort from the love seat where Jamie lay sprawled, feet propped on a hassock. “Since I didna tell ye where I was, and ye had no notion when—if ever—I’d come back, I can hardly blame ye for not waiting.”
I could see Ian in profile, leaning over the log basket. His long, good-natured face wore a slight frown.
“Weel, I didna think it right, especially wi’ me being crippled…”
There was a louder snort.
“Jenny couldna have a better husband, if you’d lost both legs and your arms as well,” Jamie said gruffly. Ian’s pale skin flushed slightly in embarrassment. Jamie coughed and swung his legs down from the hassock, leaning over to pick up a scrap of kindling that had fallen from the basket.
“How did ye come to wed anyway, given your scruples?” he asked, one side of his mouth curling up.
“Gracious, man,” Ian protested, “ye think I had any choice in the matter? Up against a Fraser?” He shook his head, grinning at his friend.
“She came up to me out in the field one day, while I was tryin’ to mend a wagon that sprang its wheel. I crawled out, all covered wi’ muck, and found her standin’ there looking like a bush covered wi’ butterflies. She looks me up and down and she says—” He paused and scratched his head. “Weel, I don’t know exactly what she said, but it ended with her kissing me, muck notwithstanding, and saying, ‘Fine, then, we’ll be married on St. Martin’s Day.’ ” He spread his hands in comic resignation. “I was still explaining why we couldna do any such thing, when I found myself in front of a priest, saying, ‘I take thee, Janet’…and swearing to a lot of verra improbable statements.”
Jamie rocked back in his seat, laughing.
“Aye, I ken the feeling,” he said. “Makes ye feel a bit hollow, no?”
Ian smiled, embarrassment forgotten. “It does and all. I still get that feeling, ye know, when I see Jenny sudden, standing against the sun on the hill, or holding wee Jamie, not lookin’ at me. I see her, and I think, ‘God, man, she can’t be yours, not really.’ ” He shook his head, brown hair flopping over his brow. “And then she turns and smiles at me…” He looked up at his brother-in-law, grinning.
“Weel, ye know yourself. I can see it’s the same wi’ you and your Claire. She’s…something special, no?”
Jamie nodded. The smile didn’t leave his face, but altered somehow.
“Aye,” he said softly. “Aye, she is that.”
Over the port and biscuits, Jamie and Ian reminisced further about their shared boyhood, and their fathers. Ian’s father, William, had died just the past spring, leaving Ian to run the estate alone.
“You remember when your father came on us down by the spring, and made us go wi’ him to the smithy to see how to fix a wagon-tree?”
“Aye, and he couldna understand why we kept squirming and shifting about—”
“And he kept asking ye did ye need to go to the privy—”
Both men were laughing too hard to finish the story, so I looked at Jenny.
“Toads,” she said succinctly. “The two o’ them each had five or six toads inside his shirt.”
“Oh, Lord,” said Ian. “When the one crawled up your neck and hopped out of your shirt into the forge, I thought I’d die.”
“I cannot imagine why my father didna wring my neck on several occasions,” said Jamie, shaking his head. “It’s a wonder I ever grew up.”
Ian looked consideringly at his own offspring, industriously engaged in piling wooden blocks on top of each other by the hearth. “I don’t quite know how I’m goin’ to manage it, when the time comes I have to beat my own son. I mean…he’s, well, he’s so small.” He gestured helplessly at the sturdy little figure, tender neck bent to his task.
Jamie eyed his small namesake cynically. “Aye, he’ll be as much a devil as you or I, give him time. After all, I suppose even I must ha’ looked small and innocent at one point.”
“You did,” said Jenny unexpectedly, coming to set a pewter cup of cider in her husband’s hand. She patted her brother on the head.
“You were verra sweet as a baby, Jamie. I remember standing over your cot. Ye canna ha’ been more than two, asleep wi’ your thumb in your mouth, and we agreed we’d never seen a prettier lad. You had fat round cheeks and the dearest red curls.”
The pretty lad turned an interesting shade of rose, and drained his cider at one gulp, avoiding my glance.
“Didna last long, though,” Jenny said, flashing white teeth in a mildly malicious smile at her brother. “How old were ye when ye got your first thrashing, Jamie? Seven?”
“No, eight,” Jamie said, thrusting a new log into the smoldering pile of kindling. “Christ, that hurt. Twelve strokes full across the bum, and he didna let up a bit, beginning to end. He never did.” He sat back on his heels, rubbing his nose with the knuckles of one hand. His cheeks were flushed and his eyes bright from the exertion.
“Once it was over, Father went off a bit and sat down on a rock while I settled myself. Then when I’d quit howling and got down to a sort of wet snuffle, he called me over to him. Now that I think of it, I can remember just what he said. Maybe you can use it on young Jamie, Ian, when the time comes.” Jamie closed his eyes, recalling.
“He stood me between his knees and made me look him in the face, and said, ‘That’s the first time, Jamie. I’ll have to do it again, maybe a hundred times, before you’re grown to a man.’ He laughed a bit then and said, ‘My father did it to me at least that often, and you’re as stubborn and cockle-headed as ever I was.’
“He said, ‘Sometimes I daresay I’ll enjoy thrashing you, depending on what you’ve done to deserve it. Mostly I won’t. But I’ll do it nonetheless. So remember it, lad. If your head thinks up mischief, your backside’s going to pay for it.’ Then he gave me a hug and said, ‘You’re a braw lad, Jamie. Go away to the house now and let your mother comfort ye.’ I opened my mouth to say something to that, and he said, quick-like, ‘No, I know you don’t need it, but she does. Get on wi’ ye.’ So I came down and Mother fed me bread with jam on it.”