He stood suddenly and took a step toward me.
“Who knows?” he said again, very softly. “If I were to plow that pretty brown-haired furrow and seed it deep each day…” The shadows on the cavern wall shifted suddenly as he took another step toward me.
“Well, you took your bloody time about it,” I said crossly.
A look of incredulous shock spread across his features before he realized that I was looking beyond him, toward the cave mouth.
“It didna seem mannerly to interrupt,” said Murtagh, advancing into the cave behind a loaded pair of flintlock pistols. He held one trained on Dougal, using the other to gesture with.
“Unless ye mean to accept that last proposal here and now, I’d suggest ye leave. And if ye do mean to accept it, then I’ll leave.”
“Nobody’s leaving yet,” I said shortly. “Sit down,” I said to Dougal. He was still standing, staring at Murtagh as though at an apparition.
“Where’s Rupert?” he demanded, finding his voice.
“Oh, Rupert.” Murtagh scratched his chin thoughtfully with the muzzle of one pistol. “He’s likely made it to Belladrum by now. Should be back before dawn,” he added helpfully, “wi’ the keg of rum he thinks ye sent him to fetch. The rest o’ your men are still asleep in Quinbrough.”
Dougal had the grace to laugh, if a little grudgingly. He sat down again, hands on his knees, and glanced from me to Murtagh and back again. There was a momentary silence.
“Well?” Dougal inquired. “Now what?”
That, I realized, was rather a good question. Surprised at finding Dougal instead of Jamie, shocked by his revelations, and infuriated at his consequent proposals, I had had no time to think of what ought to be done. Luckily, Murtagh was better prepared. Well, after all, he hadn’t been occupied in fighting off lecherous advances.
“We’ll need money,” he said promptly. “And men.” He cast an eye appraisingly over the bundles stacked against the wall. “Nay,” he said thoughtfully. “That’ll be for King James. But we’ll take what ye’ve got on your person.” The small black eyes swiveled back to Dougal and the muzzle of one pistol gestured gently in the vicinity of his sporran.
One thing to be said for life in the Highlands was that it apparently gave one a certain fatalistic attitude. With a sigh, Dougal reached into the sporran and tossed a small purse at my feet.
“Twenty gold pieces and thirty-odd shillings,” he said, lifting one brow in my direction. “Take it and welcome.”
Seeing my look of skepticism, he shook his head.
“Nay, I mean it. Think what ye like of me. Jamie’s my sister’s son, and if ye can free him, then God be wi’ ye. But ye can’t.” His tone was final.
He looked at Murtagh, still holding his pistols steady.
“As to the men, no. If you and the lass mean to commit suicide, I canna stop ye. I’ll even offer to bury ye, one on either side of Jamie. But you’ll not take my men to hell with ye, pistols or no.” He crossed his arms and leaned back against the cavern wall, calmly watching us.
Murtagh’s hands didn’t waver from his aim. His eyes flickered toward me, though. Did I wish him to shoot?
“I’ll make you a bargain,” I said.
Dougal raised one brow.
“You’re in a bit better position to bargain than I am at present,” he said. “What’s your offer?”
“Let me talk to your men,” I said. “And if they’ll come with me of their own accord, then let them. If not, we’ll go as we came—and we’ll hand back your purse, as well.”
One side of his mouth came up in a lopsided smile. He looked me over carefully, as though assessing my persuasiveness and my skills as an orator. Then he sat back, hands on his knees. He nodded once.
“Done,” he said.
In the event, we left the glen of the cave with Dougal’s purse and five men, in addition to Murtagh and myself: Rupert, John Whitlow, Willie MacMurtry, and the twin brothers, Rufus and Geordie Coulter. It was Rupert’s decision that swayed the others; I could still see—with a feeling of grim satisfaction—the look on Dougal’s face when his squat, black-bearded lieutenant eyed me speculatively, then patted the dags at his belt and said, “Aye, lass, why not?”
Wentworth Prison was thirty-five miles away. A half-hour’s ride in a fast car over good roads. Two days’ hard slog over half-frozen mud by horseback. Not long. Dougal’s words echoed in my ears, and kept me in my saddle long past the point where I might have dropped from fatigue.
My body was pushed to its limits to keep to the saddle through the long weary miles, but my mind was free to worry. To keep it from thoughts of Jamie, I spent the time remembering my interview in the cave with Dougal.
And the last thing he had said to me. Standing outside the small cave, waiting as Rupert and his companions brought their horses down from a hiding place higher up the glen, Dougal had turned to me abruptly.
“I’ve a message for ye,” he had said. “From the witch.”
“From Geilie?” To say I was startled was the least of it.
I couldn’t make out his face in the dark, but I saw his head tilt in affirmation.
“I saw her the once,” he said softly, “when I came to take the child.” Under other circumstances, I might have felt some sympathy for him, parting for the last time from his mistress, who was condemned to the stake, holding the child they had made together, a son whom he could never acknowledge. As it was, my voice was icy.
“What did she say?”
He paused; I wasn’t sure if it was merely the disinclination to reveal information, or if he was trying to make sure of his words. Apparently it was the latter, for he spoke carefully.
“She said if ever I saw you again, I was to tell you two things, just as she told them to me. The first was, “I think it is possible, but I do not know.” And the second—the second was just numbers. She made me say them over, to be sure I had them right, for I was to tell them to you in a certain order. The numbers were one, nine, six, and seven.” The tall figure turned toward me in the dark, inquiring.
“Mean anything to ye?”
“No,” I said, and turned away to my horse. But it did, of course, mean something to me.
“I think it is possible.” There was only one thing she could mean by that. She thought, though she did not know, that it was possible to go back, through the circle of stone, to my proper place. Clearly she hadn’t tried it herself, but had chosen—to her cost—to stay. Likely she had had her own reasons. Dougal, perhaps?
As for the numbers, I thought I knew what those meant, too. She had told them to him separately, for the sake of a secrecy which must have gone bone-deep in her by that time, but they were all part of one number, really. One, nine, six, seven. Nineteen-sixty-seven. The year of her disappearance into the past.
I felt a small thrill of curiosity, and deep regret. What a pity that I had not seen the vaccination mark on her arm until it was too late! And yet, had I seen it sooner, would I have gone back to the circle of stone, perhaps with her help, and left Jamie?
Jamie. The thought of him was a leaden weight in my mind, a pendulum swinging slowly at the end of a rope. Not long. The road stretched endless and dreary before us, sometimes petering out altogether into frozen marshes or open sheets of water that had once been meadows and moors. In a freezing drizzle that would soon turn to snow, we reached our goal near evening of the second day.
The building loomed up black against the overcast sky. Built in the shape of a gigantic cube, four hundred feet on a side, with a tower on each corner, it could house three hundred prisoners, plus the forty soldiers of the garrison and their commander, the civilian governor and his staff, and the four dozen cooks, orderlies, grooms, and other menials necessary for the running of the establishment. Wentworth Prison.
I looked up at the menacing walls of greenish Argyll granite, two feet thick at the base. Tiny windows pierced the walls here and there. A few were beginning to wink with light. Others, serving what I assumed were the prisoners’ cells, stayed dark. I swallowed. Seeing the massive edifice, with its impenetrable walls, its monumental gate, and its red-coated guards, I began to have doubts.
“What if”—my mouth was dry and I had to stop and lick my lips—“what if we can’t do it?”
Murtagh’s expression was the same as always: grim-mouthed and dour, narrow chin receding into the grimy neck of his shirt. It didn’t alter as he turned to me.
“Then Dougal will bury us wi’ him, one on either side,” he answered. “Come on, there’s work to be done.”
Sir Fletcher Gordon was a short and portly man, whose striped silk waistcoat fitted him like a second skin. Slope-shouldered and paunch-bellied, he looked rather like a large ham seated in the governor’s wheel-backed chair.
The bald head and rich pinkish color of his complexion did little to dispel this impression, though few hams boasted such bright blue eyes. He turned over the sheaf of papers on his desk with a slow, deliberate forefinger.
“Yes, here it is,” he said, after an interminable pause to read a page. “Fraser, James. Convicted of murder. Sentenced to hang. Now, where’s the Warrant of Execution?” He paused again, shuffling nearsightedly through the papers. I dug my fingers deep into the satin of my reticule, willing my face to remain expressionless.
“Oh, yes. Date of execution, December 23. Yes, we still have him.”
I swallowed, relaxing my hold on my bag, torn between exultation and panic. He was still alive, then. For another two days. And he was nearby, somewhere in the same building with me. The knowledge surged through my veins with a rush of adrenaline and my hands trembled.
I sat forward in the visitor’s chair, trying to look winsomely appealing.
“May I see him, Sir Fletcher? Just for a moment, in case he…he might wish me to convey a message to his family?”
In the guise of an English friend of the Fraser family, I had found it reasonably easy to gain admittance to Wentworth, and to the office of Sir Fletcher, civilian governor of the prison. It was dangerous to ask to see Jamie; not knowing my cover story, he might well give me away if he saw me suddenly without warning. For that matter, I might give myself away; I was not at all sure that I could maintain my precarious self-control if I saw him. But the next step was clearly to find out where he was; in this huge stone rabbit warren, the chances of finding him without direction were almost nil.
Sir Fletcher frowned, considering. Plainly he considered this request from a mere family acquaintance a nuisance, but he was not an unfeeling man. Finally he shook his head reluctantly.
“No, my dear. No, I’m afraid I really cannot allow that. We are rather crowded at present, and haven’t sufficient facilities to permit private interviews. And the man is presently in”—he consulted his pile of papers again—“in one of the large cells in the west block, with several other condemned felons. It would be extremely perilous for you to visit him there—or at all. The man is a dangerous prisoner, you understand; I see here that we have been keeping him in chains since his arrival.”
I gripped my bag again; this time to keep from striking him.
He shook his head again, plump chest rising and falling with his labored breathing. “No, if you were an immediate member of his family, perhaps…” He looked up, blinking. I clamped my jaw tightly, determined to give nothing away. Surely a slight show of agitation was reasonable, under the circumstances.
“But perhaps, my dear…” He seemed struck by sudden inspiration. He got ponderously to his feet and went to an inner door, where a uniformed soldier stood on guard. He murmured to the man, who nodded once and vanished.
Sir Fletcher came back to his desk, pausing on the way to retrieve a decanter and glasses from the top of a cabinet. I accepted his offer of claret; I needed it.
We were both halfway through the second glass by the time the guard returned. He marched in without invitation, placed a wooden box on the desk at Sir Fletcher’s elbow, and turned to march out again. I caught his eye lingering on me and modestly lowered my own gaze. I was wearing a gown borrowed from a lady of Rupert’s acquaintance in the nearby town, and from the scent that saturated the dress and its matching reticule, I had a reasonably good idea just what this particular lady’s profession was. I hoped the guard didn’t recognize the gown.
Draining his cup, Sir Fletcher set it down and pulled the box toward him. It was a plain, square box of unfinished wood, with a sliding lid. There were letters chalked on the lid. I could read them, even upside down. FRAYSER, they read.
Sir Fletcher slid back the lid, peered inside for a moment, then closed the box and pushed it toward me.
“The prisoner’s personal effects,” he explained. “Customarily, we send them to whomever the prisoner designates as next of kin, after execution. This man, though”—he shook his head—“has refused altogether to say anything about his family. Some estrangement, no doubt. Not unusual, of course, but regrettable under the circumstances. I hesitate to make the request, Mrs. Beauchamp, but I thought that perhaps, since you are acquainted with the family, you would consider taking it upon yourself to convey his effects to the appropriate person?”
I didn’t trust myself to speak, but nodded and buried my nose in my cup of claret.
Sir Fletcher seemed relieved, whether at disposing of the box, or at the thought of my imminent departure. He sat back, wheezing slightly, and smiled expansively at me.
“That is very kind of you, Mrs. Beauchamp. I know such a thing cannot but be a painful duty to a young woman of feeling, and I am most sensible of your kindness in undertaking it, I do assure you.”
“N-not at all,” I stammered. I managed to stand up, and to gather up the box. It measured about eight inches by six, and was four or five inches deep. A small, light box, to hold the remains of a man’s life.
I knew the things it held. Three fishing lines, neatly coiled; a cork stuck with fishhooks; a flint and steel; a small piece of broken glass, edges blunt with wear; various small stones that looked interesting or had a good feel between the fingers; a dried mole’s foot, carried as a charm against rheumatism. A Bible—or perhaps they had let him keep that? I hoped so. A ruby ring, if it hadn’t been stolen. And a small wooden snake, carved of cherry wood, with the name SAWNY scratched on its underside.
I paused at the door, gripping the frame with my fingers to steady myself.
Sir Fletcher, following courteously to see me out, was at my side in a moment.
“Mrs. Beauchamp! Are you feeling faint, my dear? Guard, a chair!”
I could feel the prickles of a cold sweat breaking out along the sides of my face, but I managed to smile and wave away the proffered chair. I wanted more than anything to get out of there—I needed fresh air, in large quantities. And I needed to be alone to cry.
“No, I’m quite all right,” I said, trying to sound convincing. “It’s only…a bit close in here, perhaps. No, I shall be perfectly all right. My groom is waiting outside, in any case.”
Forcing myself to stand up straight and smile, I had a thought. It might not help, but it couldn’t hurt.
“Oh, Sir Fletcher…”
Still worried by my appearance, he was all gallantry and attention.
“Yes, my dear?”
“It occurred to me.…How sad for a young man in this situation to be estranged from his family. I thought perhaps…if he wished to write to them—a letter of reconciliation, perhaps? I would be pleased to deliver it to—to his mother.”
“You are thoughtfulness itself, my dear.” Sir Fletcher was jovial, now that it seemed I was not going to collapse on his carpet after all. “Of course. I will inquire. Where are you staying, my dear? If there is a letter, I shall have it sent to you.”
“Well,” I was doing better with the smile, though it felt pasted on my face. “That is rather uncertain at the moment. I have several relatives and close acquaintances in the town, with whom I fear I shall be obliged to stay in turn, in order to avoid offending anyone, you see.” I managed a small laugh.
“So if it does not disturb you too much, perhaps my groom could call to inquire for the letter?”
“Of course, of course. That will do excellently, my dear. Excellently!”
And with a quick glance back at his decanter, he took my arm to escort me to the gate.
“Better, lassie?” Rupert pushed back the curtain of my hair to peer at my face. “Ye look like an ill-cured pork belly. Here, better have a bit more.”
I shook my head at the proffered whisky flask and sat up, wiping the damp rag he had brought across my face.
“No, I’m all right now.” Escorted by Murtagh, who was disguised as my groom, I had barely made it out of sight of the prison before sliding off my horse and being sick in the snow. There I remained, weeping, with Jamie’s box clutched to my bosom, until Murtagh had gathered me up bodily, forced me to mount, and led me to the small inn in Wentworth town where Rupert had found lodgings. We were in an upper room, from which the bulk of the prison was barely visible in the gathering dusk.
“Is the lad dead then?” Rupert’s broad face, half-obscured by his beard, was grave and kind, lacking any of its usual clowning.
I shook my head and took a deep breath. “Not yet.”
After hearing my story, Rupert paced slowly around the room, pushing his lips in and out as he thought. Murtagh sat still, as usual, no sign of agitation on his features. He would have made a wonderful poker player, I thought.
Rupert returned, sinking down on the bed beside me with a sigh.
“Weel, he’s alive still, and that’s the most important thing. Damned if I see what to do next, though. We’ve no way to get into the place.”
“Aye, we have,” Murtagh said, suddenly. “Thanks to the wee lassie’s thought about the letter.”
“Mmmphm. One man, though. And only so far as the governor’s office. But aye, it’s a start.” Rupert drew his dirk and idly scratched his thick beard with the point. “It’s a damn big place to search.”
“I know where he is,” I said, feeling better with the planning, and the knowledge that my companions weren’t giving up, no matter how hopeless our enterprise seemed. “At least I know which wing he’s in.”