Jenny suddenly started to laugh. “I just remembered,” she said, “Da used to tell that story about you, Jamie, about thrashing you, and what he said to you. He said when he sent ye back to the house after, you came halfway down, then all of a sudden stopped and waited for him.
“When he came down to ye, you looked up at him and said, ‘I just wanted to ask, Faither—did ye enjoy it this time?’ And when he said ‘no,’ you nodded and said, ‘Good. I didna like it much either.’ ”
We all laughed for a minute together, then Jenny looked up at her brother, shaking her head. “He loved to tell that story. Da always said you’d be the death of him, Jamie.”
The merriment died out of Jamie’s face, and he looked down at the big hands resting on his knees.
“Aye,” he said quietly. “Well, and I was, then, wasn’t I?”
Jenny and Ian exchanged glances of dismay, and I looked down at my own lap, not knowing what to say. There was no sound for a moment but the crackling of the fire. Then Jenny, with a quick look at Ian, set down her glass and touched her brother on the knee.
“Jamie,” she said. “It wasna your fault.”
He looked up at her and smiled, a little bleakly.
“No? Who else’s, then?”
She took a deep breath and said, “Mine.”
“What?” He stared at her in blank astonishment.
She had gone a little paler even than usual, but remained composed.
“I said it was my fault, as much as anyone’s. For—for what happened to you, Jamie. And Father.”
He covered her hand with his own and rubbed it gently.
“Dinna talk daft, lass,” he said. “Ye did what ye did to try to save me; you’re right, if ye’d not gone wi’ Randall, he’d likely have killed me here.”
She studied her brother’s face, a troubled frown wrinkling her rounded brow.
“No, I dinna regret taking Randall to the house—not even if he’d…well, no. But that wasn’t it.” She drew a deep breath again, steeling herself.
“When I took him inside, I brought him up to my room. I—I didna ken quite what to expect—I’d not…been wi’ a man. He seemed verra nervous, though, all flushed and as though he were not certain himself, which seemed strange to me. He pushed me onto the bed, and then he stood there, rubbing himself. I thought at first I’d really damaged him wi’ my knee, though I knew I hadna struck him so hard, really.” The color was creeping up her cheeks, and she stole a sidelong glance at Ian before looking hastily back at her lap.
“I ken now that he was trying to—to make himself ready. I didna mean to let him know I was frightened, so I sat up straight on the bed and stared at him. That seemed to anger him, and he ordered me to turn round. I wouldna do it, though, and just kept looking at him.”
Her face was the color of one of the roses by the doorstep. “He…unbuttoned himself, and I…well, I laughed at him.”
“You did what?” Jamie said incredulously.
“I laughed. I mean—” Her eyes met her brother’s with some defiance. “I kent well enough how a man’s made. I’d seen you nak*d often enough, and Willy and Ian as well. But he—” A tiny smile appeared on her lips, despite her apparent efforts to suppress it. He looked so funny, all red in the face, and rubbing himself so frantic, and yet still only half—”
There was a choked sound from Ian, and she bit her lip, but went on bravely.
“He didna like it when I laughed, and I could see it, so I laughed some more. That’s when he lunged at me and tore my dress half off me. I smacked him in the face, and he struck me across the jaw, hard enough to make me see stars. Then he grunted a bit, as though that pleased him, and started to climb onto the bed wi’ me. I had just about sense enough left to laugh again. I struggled up onto my knees, and I—I taunted him. I told him I kent he was no a real man, and couldna manage wi’ a woman. I—”
She bent her head still further, so the dark curls swung down past her flaming cheeks. Her words were very low, almost a whisper.
“I…spread the pieces of my gown apart, and I…taunted him wi’ my br**sts. I told him I knew he was afraid o’ me, because he wasna fit to touch a woman, but only to sport wi’ beasts and young lads…”
“Jenny,” said Jamie, shaking his head helplessly.
Her head came up to look at him. “Weel, I did then,” she said. “It was all I could think of, and I could see that he was fair off his head, but it was plain too that he…couldn’t. And I stared right at his breeches and I laughed again. And then he got his hands round my throat, throttling me, and I cracked my head against the bedpost, and…and when I woke he’d gone, and you wi’ him.”
There were tears standing in her lovely blue eyes as she grasped Jamie’s hands.
“Jamie, will ye forgive me? I know if I’d not angered him that way he wouldna have treated you as he did, and then Faither—”
“Oh, Jenny, love, mo cridh, don’t.” He was kneeling beside her, pulling her face into his shoulder. Ian, on her other side, looked as though he had been turned to stone.
Jamie rocked her gently as she sobbed. “Hush, little dove. Ye did right, Jenny. It wasna your fault, and maybe not mine either.” He stroked her back.
“Listen, mo cridh. He came here to do damage, under orders. And it would ha’ made no difference who he’d found here, or what you or I might have done. He meant to cause trouble, to rouse the countryside against the English, for his own purposes—and those of the man that hired him.”
Jenny stopped crying and sat up, looking at him in amazement.
“To rouse folk against the English? But why?”
Jamie made an impatient gesture with one hand. “To find out the folk that might support Prince Charles, should it come to another Rising. But I dinna ken yet which side Randall’s employer is on—if he wants to know so those that follow the Prince can be watched, and maybe have their property seized, or if it’s that he—Randall’s employer—means to go wi’ the Prince himself, and wants the Highlands roused and ready for war when the time comes. I dinna ken, and it isna important now.” He touched his sister’s hair, smoothing it back from her brow.
“All that’s important is that you’re not harmed, and I am home. Soon I’ll come back to stay, mo cridh. I promise.”
She raised his hand to her lips and kissed it, her face glowing. She fumbled in her pocket for a handkerchief and blew her nose. Then she looked at Ian, still frozen by her side, a look of hurt anger in his eyes.
She touched him gently on the shoulder.
“You think I should ha’ told you.”
He didn’t move, but went on looking at her. “Aye,” he said quietly. “I do.”
She put the handkerchief down in her lap and took him by both hands.
“Ian, man, I didna tell ye because I didna wish to lose you too. My brother was gone, and my father. I didna mean to lose my own heart’s blood as well. For you are dearer to me even than home and family, love.” She cast a lopsided smile at Jamie. “And that’s saying quite a bit.”
She looked into Ian’s eyes, pleading, and I could see love and hurt pride struggling for mastery on his face. Jamie rose then and touched me on the shoulder. We left the room quietly, leaving them together before the dying fire.
It was a clear night, and the moonlight fell in floods through the tall casements. I could not fall asleep myself, and I thought perhaps it was the light also that kept Jamie awake; he lay quite still, but I could tell by his breathing that he was not asleep. He turned onto his back, and I heard him chuckle softly under his breath.
“What’s funny?” I asked quietly.
He turned his head toward me. “Oh, did I wake ye, Sassenach? I’m sorry. I was only remembering about things.”
“I wasn’t asleep.” I scooted closer. The bed had obviously been made for the days when a whole family slept together on one mattress; the gigantic feather-bed must have consumed the entire productivity of hundreds of geese, and navigating through the drifts was like crossing the Alps without a compass. “What were you remembering?” I asked, once I had safely reached his side.
“Oh, about my father, mostly. Things he said.”
He folded his arms behind his head, staring musingly at the thick beams that crossed the low ceiling. “It’s strange,” he said, “when he was alive, I didna pay him much heed. But once he was dead, the things he’d told me had a good deal more influence.” He chuckled briefly again. “What I was thinking about was the last time he thrashed me.”
“Funny, was it?” I said. “Anyone ever told you that you have a very peculiar sense of humor, Jamie?” I fumbled through the quilts for his hand, then gave up and pushed them back. He began to stroke my back, and I snuggled next to him, making small noises of pleasure.
“Didn’t your uncle beat you, then, when you needed it?” he asked curiously. I smothered a laugh at the thought.
“Lord, no! He would have been horrified at the thought. Uncle Lamb didn’t believe in beating children—he thought they should be reasoned with, like adults.” Jamie made a Scottish noise in his throat, indicating derision at this ludicrous idea.
“That accounts for the defects in your character, no doubt,” he said, patting my bottom. “Insufficient discipline in your youth.”
“What defects in my character?” I demanded. The moonlight was bright enough for me to see his grin.
“Ye want me to list them all?”
“No.” I dug an elbow into his ribs. “Tell me about your father. How old were you then?” I asked.
“Oh, thirteen—fourteen maybe. Tall and skinny, with spots. I canna remember why I was being thrashed; at that point, it was more often something I’d said than something I’d done. All I remember is we were both of us boiling mad about it. That was one of the times he enjoyed beating me.” He pulled me to him and settled me closer against his shoulder, his arm around me. I stroked his flat belly, toying with his navel.
“Stop that, it tickles. D’ye want to hear, or no?”
“Oh, I want to hear. What are we going to do if we ever have children—reason with them, or beat them?” My heart raced a little at the thought, though there was no sign that this would ever be more than an academic question. His hand trapped mine, holding it still over his belly.
“That’s simple. You reason with them, and when you’re through, I’ll take them out and thrash them.”
“I thought you liked children.”
“I do. My father liked me, when I wasna being an idiot. And he loved me, too—enough to beat the daylights out of me when I was being an idiot.”
I flopped onto my stomach. “All right, then. Tell me about it.”
Jamie sat up and wadded the pillows more comfortably before lying back down, folded arms behind his head again.
“Well, he sent me up to the fence, as usual—he always made me go up first, so I could experience the proper mixture of terror and remorse while I waited for him, he said—but he was so angry, he was right behind me. I was bent over and taking it, then, gritting my teeth and determined I’d make no noise about it—damned if I’d let him know how much it hurt. I was digging my fingers into the wood of the fence rail as hard as I could—hard enough to leave splinters behind—and I could feel my face turnin’ red from holding my breath.” He drew a deep breath, as though making up for it, and let it out slowly.
“Usually I’d know when it was going to be over, but this time he didn’t stop. It was all I could do to keep my mouth shut; I was grunting wi’ each stroke and I could feel the tears starting, no matter how much I blinked, but I held on for dear life.” He was uncovered to the waist, almost glowing in the moonlight, frosted with tiny silver hairs. I could see the pulse beat just below his breastbone, a steady throb just under my hand.
“I don’t know how long it went on,” he continued. “Not that long, likely, but it seemed like a long time to me. At last he stopped a moment and shouted at me. He was beside himself wi’ fury, and I was so furious myself I could barely make out what he said at first, but then I could.
“He roared ‘Damn you, Jamie! Can ye no cry out? You’re grown now, and I dinna mean to beat you ever again, but I want one good yelp out of ye, lad, before I quit, just so I’ll think I’ve made some impression on ye at last!’ ” Jamie laughed, disturbing the even movement of his pulsebeat.
“I was so upset at that, I straightened up and whirled round and yelled at him, ‘Weel, why did ye no say so in the first place, ye auld fool! OUCH!!’
“Next thing I knew I was on the ground, wi’ my ears ringing and a pain in my jaw, where he’d clouted me. He was standing over me, panting, and wi’ his hair and his beard all on end. He reached down and got my hand and hauled me up.
“Then he patted my jaw, and said, still breathing hard, ‘That’s for calling your father a fool. It may be true, but it’s disrespectful. Come on, we’ll wash for supper.’ And he never struck me again. He still shouted at me, but I shouted back, and it was mostly man to man, after that.”
He laughed comfortably, and I smiled into the warmth of his shoulder.
“I wish I’d known your father,” I said. “Or maybe it’s better not,” I said, struck by a thought. “He might not have liked you marrying an Englishwoman.”
Jamie hugged me closer and pulled the quilts up over my bare shoulders. “He’d have thought I’d got some sense at last.” He stroked my hair. “He’d have respected my choice, whoever it was, but you”—he turned his head and kissed my brow gently—“he would have liked you verra much, my Sassenach.” And I recognized it for the accolade it was.
CONVERSATIONS BY THE HEARTH
Whatever rift Jenny’s revelations had caused between her and Ian, it seemed to have healed. We sat for a short time after dinner in the parlor next evening, Ian and Jamie talking over the farm’s business in the corner, accompanied by a decanter of elderberry wine, while Jenny relaxed at last with her swollen ankles propped on a hassock. I tried to write down some of the receipts she had tossed over her shoulder at me as we whizzed through the day’s work, consulting her for details as I scribbled.
TO TREAT CARBUNCLES, I headed one sheet.
Three iron nails, to be soaked for one week in sour ale. Add one handful of cedarwood shavings, allow to set. When shavings have sunk to the bottom, mixture is ready. Apply three times daily, beginning on the first day of a quarter moon.
BEESWAX CANDLES began another sheet.
Drain honey from the comb. Remove dead bees, so far as possible. Melt comb with a small amount of water in a large cauldron. Skin bees, wings, and other impurities from surface of water. Drain water, replace. Stir frequently for half an hour, then allow to settle. Drain water, keep for use in sweetening. Purify with water twice more.
My hand was getting tired, and I had not even gotten to the making of candle molds, the twisting of wicks, and the hanging of candles to dry.
“Jenny,” I called, “how long does it take to make candles, counting everything?”
She laid the small shirt she was stitching in her lap, considering.
“Half a day to gather the combs, two to drain the honey—one if it’s hot—one day to purify the wax, unless there’s a lot or it’s verra dirty—then two. Half a day to make the wicks, one or two to make the molds, half a day to melt the wax, pour the molds and hang them to dry. Say a week altogether.”
The dim lamplight and the sputtering quill were too much to contend with after the day’s labors. I sat down next to Jenny and admired the tiny garment she was embroidering with nearly invisible stitches.
Her rounded stomach suddenly heaved, as the inhabitant shifted position. I watched, fascinated. I had never been close to someone pregnant for a prolonged period, and hadn’t realized the amount of activity that went on inside.
“Would you like to feel it?” Jenny offered, seeing me staring at her middle.
“Well…” She took my hand and placed it firmly on her mound.
“Right there. Just wait a moment; he’ll kick again soon. They don’t like ye lying back like this, ye know. It makes them restless and they start to squirm.”
Sure enough, a surprisingly vigorous push raised my hand by several inches.
“Goodness! He’s strong!” I exclaimed.
“Aye.” Jenny patted her stomach with a touch of pride. “He’ll be bonny, like his brother and his Da.” She smiled across at Ian, whose attention had momentarily wandered from the breeding records of horses to his wife and child-to-be.
“Or even like his good-for-nothing red-heided uncle,” she added, raising her voice slightly and nudging me.
“Hey?” Jamie looked up, distracted from his accounts. “Were ye speaking to me?”
“I wonder was it the ‘red-heided’ or the ‘good-for-nothing’ that caught his attention,” Jenny said to me, sotto voce, with another nudge.
To Jamie she said sweetly, “Nothing at all, mo cridh. We were just speculating on the possibility that the new one would have the misfortune to resemble its uncle.”
The uncle in question grinned and came across to sit on the hassock, Jenny amiably moving her feet, then replacing them in his lap.
“Rub them for me, Jamie,” she begged. “You’re better at it than Ian.”
He obliged, and Jenny leaned back and closed her eyes in bliss. She dropped the tiny shirt on her central mound, which continued to heave as though in protest. Jamie stared entranced at the movements, just as I had.
“Isn’t it uncomfortable?” he asked. “Havin’ someone turn somersaults in your belly?”
Jenny opened her eyes and grimaced as a long swell arced across her stomach.
“Mmm. Sometimes I feel my liver’s black and blue from bein’ kicked. But mostly it’s a good feeling, instead. It’s like…” She hesitated, then grinned at her brother. “It’s hard to describe to a man, you not having the proper parts. I don’t suppose I could tell ye what carrying a child feels like, no more than you could tell me what it’s like to be kicked in the ballocks.”