The Scottish Prisoner (Lord John Grey 3) - Page 10

The officer looked him up and down, assessing, but his face gave nothing away. A middle-aged man, with a sour look. He didn’t offer his name.

“You’re to go with these men, Fraser,” Dunsany said. His face was old, his expression remote. “Do as they tell you.”

He stood mute. Damned if he’d say, “Yes, sir,” and double-damned if he’d knuckle his forehead like a servant. The officer looked sharply at him, then at Dunsany, to see whether this insubordination was to be punished, but, finding nothing but weariness in the old man’s face, shrugged slightly and nodded to the privates.

They moved purposefully toward him, one taking him by each arm. He couldn’t avoid it but felt the urge to jerk himself free. They led him into the hall and out the front door; he could see the butler smirking from his pantry and two of the maids hanging wide-eyed and openmouthed out of the upper windows as the men emerged onto the drive, where a coach stood waiting.

“Where are ye taking me?” he asked, with what calmness he could.

The men glanced at each other; one shrugged.

“You’re going to London,” he said.

“To visit the Queen,” the other said, and sniggered.

He had to duck to enter the carriage and, in doing so, turned his head. Lady Isobel stood in the window, mouth open in shock. William was in her arms, small head laid in sleep on her shoulder. Behind them, Betty smiled at him, maliciously pleased.

SECTION II

Force Majeure

7

When a Man Is Tired of London,

He Is Tired of Life

THE SOLDIERS GAVE HIM A SERVICEABLE CLOAK TO WEAR AND food at the taverns and inns, shoving it indifferently across the table toward him, ignoring him while they talked, save an occasional sharp glance to be sure he wasn’t getting up to something. What, exactly, did they think he might do? he wondered. If he’d ever meant to escape, he could have done it much more easily from Helwater.

He gathered nothing from their conversation, which seemed mostly regimental gossip, bawdy remarks about women, and low jokes. Not a word as to their destination.

At the second stop, there was wine—decent wine. He drank it cautiously; he hadn’t tasted anything stronger than small beer in years, and the lush flavor clung to his palate and rose like smoke inside his head. The soldiers shared three bottles—and so did he, welcoming the slowing of his racing thoughts as the alcohol seeped into his blood. It would do him no good to think, until he knew what to think about.

He tried to keep his mind off their unknown destination and what might await him there, but it was like trying not to think of a—

“Rhinoceros,” Claire said, with a muffled snort of amusement that stirred the hairs on his chest. “Have you ever seen one?”

“I have,” he said, shifting her weight so she rested more comfortably in the hollow of his shoulder. “In Louis’s zoo. Aye, that would stick in the mind.”

Abruptly, she vanished and left him sitting there, blinking stupidly into his wine cup.

Had it really happened, that memory? Or was it only his desire that now and then brought her so vividly to life, in snatched moments that left him desperate with longing but strangely comforted, as though she had in fact touched him briefly?

He became aware that the soldiers had all stopped talking and were staring at him. And that he was smiling. He looked back at them over his cup, not altering his expression.

They looked away, uneasy, and he went back to his wife, for the moment tranquil in his mind.

THEY DID TAKE HIM to London.

He tried not to gawk; he was aware of the soldiers casting covert glances at him, sly smiles. They expected him to be impressed, and he declined to give them the satisfaction—but he was impressed, nonetheless.

So this was London. It had the stink of any city, the narrow alleys, the smell of slops and chimney smoke. But any large city has its own soul, and London was quite different from either Paris or Edinburgh. Paris was secretive, self-satisfied; Edinburgh solidly busy, a merchants’ town. But this … It was rowdy, churning like an anthill, and gave off a sense of pushing, as though the energy of the place would burst its bonds and spill out over the countryside, spill out into the world at large. His blood stirred, despite his fears and the tooth-jolting ride.

The Jacobite soldiers would talk about London, early in the campaign, when they were victorious and London seemed a plum within their grasp. Wild tales—almost none of them had ever seen a city, before they came to Edinburgh. Talk of gold plates in the taverns, streets with gilded carriages thick as lice …

He remembered Murdo Lindsay, bug-eyed at the description of boozing kens, where the poor clustered in dark cellars, drowning the misery of life in Holland gin.

“Whole families!” Murdo exclaimed. “All of them, dead drunk! If even the poor folk can afford to stay drunk for days at a time, what must the rich ones be like?”

He’d smiled then, amused. He smiled now, bitter.

As the campaign had turned, withering in the cold, when the army camped at Derby, shivering while the commanders argued whether to push on or not, the soldiers had still talked of London. But they talked in whispers then, and not of gold plates and Holland gin. They talked of the gallows, of the famous Bridge, where the heads of traitors were displayed. Of the Tower.

That thought sent a qualm through him. Christ, could they be taking him there? He was a convicted traitor, though paroled these past four years. And he was the grandson of Lord Lovat, who had met his death on the block at that same Tower. He hadn’t been fond of his grandfather, but crossed himself and murmured “Fois air Anam …” under his breath. Peace on his soul.

He wondered what the devil the Tower of London looked like. He’d imagined it, of course, but God only knew what the reality was. It was big, though; it had to be big. So he’d have a bit of warning, seeing it. He’d be prepared.

Aye, prepared for prison? he thought. The idea of it, of cold stone and small spaces, endless days, months, and years in a cage as life and body dwindled inexorably away, shriveled his heart. And William. He would never see William again. But they might kill him instead. At the moment, that was his only hope.

But why? Had his parole been revoked? That last, disastrous conversation with John Grey … His fists curled up without thought, and one of the soldiers started, looking at him hard. With an effort, he unclenched his hands and pulled them inside his cloak, gripping his thighs under its cover hard enough to leave bruises.

He hadn’t seen—or heard from—Grey since that day. Had the man been nursing a grudge all this time and finally decided to put paid to Jamie Fraser’s account, once and for all? It was the most likely explanation—and unforgivable things had been said on both sides. Worse, both of them had meant the things they said, and both of them knew it. No excuse of hot blood speaking—though, in all justice, his own blood had boiled, and …

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The officer looked him up and down, assessing, but his face gave nothing away. A middle-aged man, with a sour look. He didn’t offer his name.

“You’re to go with these men, Fraser,” Dunsany said. His face was old, his expression remote. “Do as they tell you.”

He stood mute. Damned if he’d say, “Yes, sir,” and double-damned if he’d knuckle his forehead like a servant. The officer looked sharply at him, then at Dunsany, to see whether this insubordination was to be punished, but, finding nothing but weariness in the old man’s face, shrugged slightly and nodded to the privates.

They moved purposefully toward him, one taking him by each arm. He couldn’t avoid it but felt the urge to jerk himself free. They led him into the hall and out the front door; he could see the butler smirking from his pantry and two of the maids hanging wide-eyed and openmouthed out of the upper windows as the men emerged onto the drive, where a coach stood waiting.

“Where are ye taking me?” he asked, with what calmness he could.

The men glanced at each other; one shrugged.

“You’re going to London,” he said.

“To visit the Queen,” the other said, and sniggered.

He had to duck to enter the carriage and, in doing so, turned his head. Lady Isobel stood in the window, mouth open in shock. William was in her arms, small head laid in sleep on her shoulder. Behind them, Betty smiled at him, maliciously pleased.

SECTION II

Force Majeure

7

When a Man Is Tired of London,

He Is Tired of Life

THE SOLDIERS GAVE HIM A SERVICEABLE CLOAK TO WEAR AND food at the taverns and inns, shoving it indifferently across the table toward him, ignoring him while they talked, save an occasional sharp glance to be sure he wasn’t getting up to something. What, exactly, did they think he might do? he wondered. If he’d ever meant to escape, he could have done it much more easily from Helwater.

He gathered nothing from their conversation, which seemed mostly regimental gossip, bawdy remarks about women, and low jokes. Not a word as to their destination.

At the second stop, there was wine—decent wine. He drank it cautiously; he hadn’t tasted anything stronger than small beer in years, and the lush flavor clung to his palate and rose like smoke inside his head. The soldiers shared three bottles—and so did he, welcoming the slowing of his racing thoughts as the alcohol seeped into his blood. It would do him no good to think, until he knew what to think about.

He tried to keep his mind off their unknown destination and what might await him there, but it was like trying not to think of a—

“Rhinoceros,” Claire said, with a muffled snort of amusement that stirred the hairs on his chest. “Have you ever seen one?”

“I have,” he said, shifting her weight so she rested more comfortably in the hollow of his shoulder. “In Louis’s zoo. Aye, that would stick in the mind.”

Abruptly, she vanished and left him sitting there, blinking stupidly into his wine cup.

Had it really happened, that memory? Or was it only his desire that now and then brought her so vividly to life, in snatched moments that left him desperate with longing but strangely comforted, as though she had in fact touched him briefly?

He became aware that the soldiers had all stopped talking and were staring at him. And that he was smiling. He looked back at them over his cup, not altering his expression.

They looked away, uneasy, and he went back to his wife, for the moment tranquil in his mind.

THEY DID TAKE HIM to London.

He tried not to gawk; he was aware of the soldiers casting covert glances at him, sly smiles. They expected him to be impressed, and he declined to give them the satisfaction—but he was impressed, nonetheless.

So this was London. It had the stink of any city, the narrow alleys, the smell of slops and chimney smoke. But any large city has its own soul, and London was quite different from either Paris or Edinburgh. Paris was secretive, self-satisfied; Edinburgh solidly busy, a merchants’ town. But this … It was rowdy, churning like an anthill, and gave off a sense of pushing, as though the energy of the place would burst its bonds and spill out over the countryside, spill out into the world at large. His blood stirred, despite his fears and the tooth-jolting ride.

The Jacobite soldiers would talk about London, early in the campaign, when they were victorious and London seemed a plum within their grasp. Wild tales—almost none of them had ever seen a city, before they came to Edinburgh. Talk of gold plates in the taverns, streets with gilded carriages thick as lice …

He remembered Murdo Lindsay, bug-eyed at the description of boozing kens, where the poor clustered in dark cellars, drowning the misery of life in Holland gin.

“Whole families!” Murdo exclaimed. “All of them, dead drunk! If even the poor folk can afford to stay drunk for days at a time, what must the rich ones be like?”

He’d smiled then, amused. He smiled now, bitter.

As the campaign had turned, withering in the cold, when the army camped at Derby, shivering while the commanders argued whether to push on or not, the soldiers had still talked of London. But they talked in whispers then, and not of gold plates and Holland gin. They talked of the gallows, of the famous Bridge, where the heads of traitors were displayed. Of the Tower.

That thought sent a qualm through him. Christ, could they be taking him there? He was a convicted traitor, though paroled these past four years. And he was the grandson of Lord Lovat, who had met his death on the block at that same Tower. He hadn’t been fond of his grandfather, but crossed himself and murmured “Fois air Anam …” under his breath. Peace on his soul.

He wondered what the devil the Tower of London looked like. He’d imagined it, of course, but God only knew what the reality was. It was big, though; it had to be big. So he’d have a bit of warning, seeing it. He’d be prepared.

Aye, prepared for prison? he thought. The idea of it, of cold stone and small spaces, endless days, months, and years in a cage as life and body dwindled inexorably away, shriveled his heart. And William. He would never see William again. But they might kill him instead. At the moment, that was his only hope.

But why? Had his parole been revoked? That last, disastrous conversation with John Grey … His fists curled up without thought, and one of the soldiers started, looking at him hard. With an effort, he unclenched his hands and pulled them inside his cloak, gripping his thighs under its cover hard enough to leave bruises.

He hadn’t seen—or heard from—Grey since that day. Had the man been nursing a grudge all this time and finally decided to put paid to Jamie Fraser’s account, once and for all? It was the most likely explanation—and unforgivable things had been said on both sides. Worse, both of them had meant the things they said, and both of them knew it. No excuse of hot blood speaking—though, in all justice, his own blood had boiled, and …

There it was. He gasped, couldn’t help it, though it made all the soldiers look at him, conversation interrupted.

It had to be. He knew the look of a prison well enough. Huge round towers set in a grim high wall, and the filthy brown water of a broad river flowing past, flowing under an iron-barred gate. The Traitors’ Gate? He’d heard of it.

All of them were grinning at him, maliciously enjoying his shock. He swallowed hard and tensed his belly muscles. They wouldn’t see him cower. His pride was all he had left—but he had enough of that.

But the carriage didn’t leave the road. They bowled past the grim bulk of the moated tower, the horses’ hooves ringing on cobbles, and he blessed the sound because it drowned the wrenching gasp when he realized he’d stopped breathing and started again.

It wasn’t a warm day, but he was drenched in sudden sweat and saw the private behind him wrinkle his nose and glance sideways at him. He reeked of fear, could smell himself.

Could ha’ been worse, a bhalaich, he thought, coldly meeting the man’s eye and staring ’til he looked away. I might have shit myself and ye’d have to ride into London smelling that.

WHAT WITH THE TANGLE of foot traffic, barrows, carriages, and horses that thronged the narrow streets, it was more than an hour before the coach finally pulled up outside a massive house that stood in its own walled grounds at the edge of a huge open park. He stared at it in astonishment. If not the tower, he’d certainly expected to be taken to a gaol of some kind. Who the devil lived here, and what did whoever it was want of him?

The soldiers didn’t tell him, and he wouldn’t ask.

To his amazement, they took him up the marble steps to the front door, where they made him wait while the lieutenant banged at the knocker, then spoke to the butler who answered it. The butler was a small, neat man, who blinked in disbelief at sight of Jamie, then turned to the lieutenant, plainly about to remonstrate.

“His Grace said bring him, and I’ve brought him,” said the lieutenant impatiently. “Show us in!”

His Grace? A duke? What the devil might a duke want with him? The only duke he knew of was … God … Cumberland? His heart had already been in his throat; now his wame tried to follow it. He’d seen the Duke of Cumberland only once. When he’d left the battlefield at Culloden, wounded, hidden under a load of hay in a wagon. The wagon had passed through the edge of the government lines, just at evening, and he’d seen the big tent, a squat, vigorous figure outside it irritably waving away clouds of smoke with a gold-laced hat. The smoke of burning bodies—the smoke of the Jacobite dead.

He felt the soldiers jerk and glance at him, startled. He froze, fists at his side, but the chill and the fear were gone, burned away by the sense of rage that rose abruptly, drawing him upright with it.

His heart beat painfully, eager, for all at once the future had a shape to it. No more long days of mere survival. He had purpose, and the glow of it lit his soul.

The butler was falling back, reluctant, but unable to resist. Aye, fine. All he need do was behave circumspectly until he got within grip of the duke. He flexed his left hand briefly. There might be a knife, a letter opener, something … but it didn’t matter.

The lieutenant jerked his head, and he moved, just in time to keep the privates from grasping his arms. He saw the butler’s eyes fix on his feet, mouth twisted in a sneer of contempt. A door opened in the hallway and a woman’s face appeared for a moment. She caught sight of him, gasped, and closed the door.

He would in fact have wiped his sandals, had they given him time; he’d no desire either to foul the house nor to look like the barbarian they plainly thought him. The men hastened him along, though, one on either side, and he had even less wish to give them an excuse to lay their hands on him, so he went, leaving dusty prints crumbled with dry mud and caked manure along the polished floor of the hallway.

The door to the room was open, and they propelled him inside without ceremony. He was looking everywhere at once, gauging distances, estimating the possibilities of objects as weapons, and it was a long instant before his eyes met those of the man seated at the desk.

For a moment longer, his mind refused to grasp the reality, and he blinked. No, it wasn’t Cumberland. Not even the passage of years could have transformed a stout German prince into the slender, fine-featured man frowning at him across the polished wood.

“Mr. Fraser.” It wasn’t quite a question, nor was it quite a greeting, though the man inclined his head courteously.

Jamie was breathing as though he’d run a mile, hands shaking slightly as his body tried to burn away anger that now had no outlet.

“Who are you?” he asked rudely.

The man shot a sharp glance at the lieutenant.

“Did you not tell him, Mr. Gaskins?”

Gaskins. It was a minor relief to know the bugger’s name. And a distinct pleasure to see him go red and then white.

“I … er … I … no, sir.”

“Leave us, Lieutenant.” The man didn’t raise his voice, but it cut like a razor. He’s a soldier, Jamie thought, and then, I ken him. But where …?

The man stood up, ignoring Lieutenant Gaskins’s hasty departure.

“My apologies, Mr. Fraser,” he said. “Were you mistreated on your journey?”

“No,” he replied automatically, scrutinizing the face before him. It was remarkably familiar, and yet he would swear he didn’t … “Why am I here?”

The man drew a deep breath, the frown easing, and as it did, Jamie saw the shape of the man’s face, fine-boned and beautiful, though showing the marks of a hard life. He felt as though someone had punched him in the chest.

“Jesus,” he said. “Ye’re John Grey’s brother.” He groped madly for the name and found it. “Lord … Melton. Jesus Christ.”

“Well, yes,” the man said. “Though I don’t use that title any longer. I’ve become the Duke of Pardloe since we last met.” He smiled wryly. “It has been some time. Please sit down, Mr. Fraser.”

8

Debts of Honor

HE WAS SO SHOCKED THAT HE WENT ON STANDING THERE, gaping like a loon at the man. Melton—Pardloe, rather—looked him up and down, brows slightly knit in concentration.

Recovering himself, Jamie sat down abruptly, the gilded chair feeling flimsy and strange under his buttocks. Pardloe sat, too, and without taking his eyes off Jamie’s face shouted, “Pilcock! I want you!”

This produced a footman—Jamie didn’t turn to look at the man but heard the deferential tread, the murmured “Your Grace?” behind him.

“Bring us some whisky, Pilcock,” Pardloe said, still eyeing Jamie. “And biscuits—no, not biscuits, something more substantial.”

Pilcock made a questioning noise, causing the duke to glance over Jamie’s shoulder at him, features creasing in irritation.

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