Manfred McGillivray did not come back. Ian did, with a blackened eye, skinned knuckles, and the terse report that Manfred had declared a set intention of going off and hanging himself, and good riddance to the fornicating son-of-a-bitch, and might his rotten bowels gush forth like Judas Iscariot’s, the traitorous, stinking wee turd. He then stamped upstairs, to stand silent over Lizzie’s bed for a time.
Hearing this, I hoped that Manfred’s statement was merely the counsel of temporary despair—and cursed myself for not having told him at once and in the strongest terms that he could be cured, whether it was absolutely true or not. Surely he wouldn’t…
Lizzie was half-conscious, prostrated with the burning fevers and shaking agues of malaria, and in no fit state to be told of her betrothed’s desertion, nor the cause of it. I would have to make some delicate inquiries, though, so soon as she was fit, because there was the possibility that she and Manfred had anticipated their marriage vows, and if so…
“Well, there’s the one thing about it,” Jamie observed grimly. “The Beardsley twins were making ready to track our poxed lad down and castrate him, but now they’ve heard he means to hang himself, they’ve magnanimously decided that will do.”
“Thank the Lord for small blessings,” I said, sinking down at the table. “They might really do it.” The Beardsleys, particularly Josiah, were excellent trackers–and not given to idle threats.
“Oh, they would,” Jamie assured me. “They were most seriously sharpening their knives when I found them at it and told them not to trouble themselves.”
I suppressed an involuntary smile at the image of the Beardsleys, bent side by side over a grindstone, their lean, dark faces set in identical scowls of vengeance, but the momentary flash of humor faded.
“Oh, God. We’ll have to tell the McGillivrays.”
Jamie nodded, looking pale at the thought, but pushed back his bench.
“I’d best go straight-away.”
“Not ’til ye’ve had a bite.” Mrs. Bug put a plate of food firmly in front of him. “Ye dinna want to be dealing wi’ Ute McGillivray on an empty stomach.”
Jamie hesitated, but evidently found her argument to have merit, for he picked up his fork and addressed himself to the ragoo’d pork with grim determination.
“Perhaps you should let the Beardsleys track Manfred down. Not to hurt him, I don’t mean—but we need to find him. He will die of it, if he isn’t treated.”
He paused, a forkful of ragoo halfway to his mouth, and regarded me under lowered brows.
“Aye, and if they find him, he’ll die of that, Sassenach.” He shook his head, and the fork completed its journey. He chewed and swallowed, evidently completing his plan as he did so.
“Joseph’s in Bethabara, courting. He’ll have to be told, and by rights, I should fetch him to go with me to the McGillivrays. But…” he hesitated, clearly envisioning Mr. Wemyss, that mildest and shyest of men, and no one’s notion of a useful ally. “No. I’ll go and tell Robin. May be as he’ll start searching for the lad himself—or Manfred may have thought better of it and run for home already.”
That was a cheering thought, and I saw him off with hope in mind. But he returned near midnight, grim-faced and silent, and I knew that Manfred had not come home.
“You told them both?” I asked, turning back the coverlet for him to crawl in beside me. He smelled of horse and night, cool and pungent.
“I asked Robin to walk outside wi’ me, and told him. I hadna the nerve to tell Ute to her face,” he admitted. He smiled at me, snuggling under the quilt. “Ye dinna think me too much a coward, I hope, Sassenach.”
“No, indeed,” I assured him, and leaned to blow out the candle. “Discretion is the better part of valor.”
We were roused just before dawn by a thunderous pounding on the door. Rollo, who had been sleeping on the landing, shot down the stair, roaring threats. He was closely followed by Ian, who had been sitting up by Lizzie’s bed, keeping watch while I slept. Jamie leapt out of bed, and seizing a loaded pistol from the top of the wardrobe, rushed to join the fray.
Shocked and dazed—I had been asleep for less than an hour—I sat up, heart pounding. Rollo stopped barking for a moment, and I heard Jamie shout, “Who is it?” through the door.
This query was answered by a renewed pounding that echoed up the stairwell and seemed to shake the house, accompanied by an upraised feminine voice that would have done credit to Wagner in one of his more robust moods. Ute McGillivray.
I began to struggle out of the bedclothes. Meanwhile, a confusion of voices, renewed barking, the grate of the bolt being lifted—and then more confused voices, all much louder. I ran to the window and looked out; Robin McGillivray was standing in the dooryard, having evidently just dismounted from one of a pair of mules.
He looked much older, and somehow deflated, as though the spirit had gone out of him, taking all his strength and leaving him flabby. He turned his head away from whatever riot was taking place on the stoop, closing his eyes. The sun was just up now, and the pure clear light showed up all the lines and hollows of exhaustion and a desperate unhappiness.
As though he sensed me looking at him, he opened his eyes and raised his face toward the window. He was red-eyed, disheveled. He saw me, but didn’t respond to my tentative wave of greeting. Instead, he turned away, closing his eyes again, and stood, waiting.
The riot below had moved inside, and appeared to be progressing up the stairs, borne on a wave of Scottish expostulations and Germanic shrieks, punctuated by enthusiastic barking from Rollo, always willing to lend his efforts to further the festivities.
I seized my wrapper from its peg, but had barely got one arm into it before the door of the bedchamber was flung open, crashing into the wall so hard that it rebounded and hit her in the chest. Nothing daunted, she slammed it open again and advanced on me like a juggernaut, cap awry and eyes blazing.
“You! [German] bitch! How you dare, such insult, such lies to say my son about! You I kill, I tear off your hair, [German epithet!] Nighean na galled! You—”
She lunged at me and I flung myself sideways, narrowly avoiding her grab at my arm.
“Ute! Frau McGillivray! Listen to—”
The second grab was more successful; she got hold of the dangling sleeve of my nightrail and wrenched, dragging the garment off my shoulder with a rending noise of torn cloth, even as she clawed at my face with her free hand.
I jerked back, and screamed with all my strength, my nerves recalling for one dreadful instant a hand striking at my face, hands pulling at me…
I struck at her, the strength of terror flooding through my limbs, screaming, screaming, some tiny remnant of rationality in my brain watching this, bemused, appalled—but completely unable to stop the animal panic, the unreasoning rage that geysered up from some deep and unsuspected well.
I hit out, hammering blindly, screaming—wondering even as I did so, why, why was I doing this?
An arm grabbed me round the waist and I was lifted off the ground. A fresh spurt of panic ripped through me, and then I found myself suddenly alone, untouched. I was standing in the corner by the wardrobe, swaying drunkenly, panting. Jamie stood in front of me, shoulders braced and elbows raised, shielding me.
He was talking, very calmly, but I had lost the capacity to make sense of words. I pressed my hands back against the wall, and felt some sense of comfort from its solid bulk.
My heart was still hammering in my ears, the sound of my own breathing scaring me, it was so like the gasping sound when Harley Boble had broken my nose. I shut my mouth hard, trying to stop. Holding my breath seemed to work, allowing only small inhalations through my now-functioning nose.
The movement of Ute’s mouth caught my eye and I stared at it, trying to fix myself once more in time and space. I was hearing words, but couldn’t quite make the jump of comprehension. I breathed, letting the words flow over me like water, taking emotion from them—anger, reason, protest, placation, shrillness, growling—but no explicit meaning.
Then I took a deep breath, wiped my face—I was surprised to find it wet—and suddenly everything snapped back to normal. I could hear, and understand.
Ute was staring at me, anger and dislike clear on her face, but muted by a lurking horror.
“You are mad,” she said, nodding. “I see.” She sounded almost calm at this point. “Well, then.”
She turned to Jamie, automatically twisting up untidy handsful of grizzled blonde hair, stuffing them under her enormous cap. The lace edging had been torn; a loop of it dangled absurdly over one eye.
“So, she is mad. I will say so—but still, my son— my son! is gone. So.” She stood heaving, surveying me, and shook her head, then turned again to Jamie.
“Salem is closed to you,” she said curtly. “My family, those who know us—they will not trade with you. Nor anyone else I speak to, to tell them the wicked thing she has done.” Her eye drifted back to me, a cold, gelid blue, and her lip curled in a heavy sneer under the loop of torn lace.
“You are shunned,” she said. “You do not exist, you.” She turned on her heel and walked out, forcing Ian and Rollo to sidestep hastily out of her way. Her footfalls echoed heavily on the stair, a ponderous, measured tread, like the tolling of a passing-bell.
I saw the tension in Jamie’s shoulders relax, little by little. He was still wearing his nightshirt—there was a damp patch between his shoulder-blades—and had the pistol still in his hand.
The front door boomed shut below. Everyone stood still, struck silent.
“You wouldn’t really have shot her, would you?” I asked, clearing my throat.
“What?” He turned, staring at me. Then he caught the direction of my glance, and looked at the pistol in his hand as though wondering where that had come from.
“Oh,” he said, “no,” and shook his head, reaching up to put it back on top of the wardrobe. “I forgot I had it. Though God kens well enough that I should like to shoot the besotted auld besom,” he added. “Are ye all right, Sassenach?”
He stooped to look at me, his eyes soft with worry.
“I’m all right. I don’t know what—but it’s all right. It’s gone now.”
“Ah,” he said softly, and looked away, lashes coming down to hide his eyes. Had he felt it too, then? Found himself suddenly…back? I knew he had; remembered waking from sleep in Paris to see him braced in an open window, pressing so hard against the frame that the muscles stood out in his arms, visible by moonlight.
“It’s all right,” I repeated, touching him, and he gave me a brief, shy smile.
“Ye should have bitten her,” Ian was saying earnestly to Rollo. “She’s got an arse the size of a hogshead of tobacco—how could ye miss?”
“Probably afraid of being poisoned,” I said, coming out of my corner. “Do you suppose she meant it—or no, she meant it, certainly. But do you suppose she can do it? Stop anyone trading with us, I mean.”
“She can stop Robin,” Jamie said, a certain grimness returning to his expression. “For the rest… we’ll see.”
Ian shook his head, frowning, and rubbed his knuckled fist gingerly against his thigh.
“I kent I should have broken Manfred’s neck,” he said, with real regret. “We could ha’ told Frau Ute he fell off a rock, and saved a deal of trouble.”
“Manfred?” The small voice made everyone turn as one, to see who had spoken.
Lizzie stood in the doorway, thin and pale as a starveling ghost, her eyes huge and glassy with recent fever.
“What about Manfred?” she said. She swayed dangerously, and put out a hand to the jamb, to save herself falling. “What’s happened to him?”
“Poxed and gone,” Ian said curtly, drawing himself up. “Ye didna give him your maidenheid, I hope.”
Copyright © 2005 by Diana Gabaldon. All rights reserved.
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