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Excerpt 2 – Outlander – A Highland Ghost

Copyright 1991 Diana Gabaldon

There was a sudden flash close at hand, with the crash of thunder following close on its heels, and all the lights went out. Cursing under my breath, I groped in the drawers.

Somewhere I had seen candles and matches; power failure was so frequent an occurrence in the Highlands that candles were a necessary furnishing for all inn and hotel rooms. I had seen them even in the most elegant hotels, where they were scented with honeysuckle, and presented in frosted glass holders with shimmering pendants.

Mrs. Baird’s candles were far more utilitarian—plain white plumber’s candles—but there were a lot of them, and three folders of matches as well. I was not inclined to be picky over style at a time like this.

I fitted a candle to the blue ceramic holder on the dressing table by the light of the next flash, then moved about the room, lighting others, ‘til the whole room was filled with a soft, wavering radiance. Very romantic, I thought, and with some presence of mind, I pressed down the light switch, so that a sudden return of power shouldn’t ruin the mood at some inopportune moment.

The candles had burned no more than a half-inch when the door opened and Frank blew in. Literally, for the draft that followed him up the stairs extinguished three of the candles.

The door closed behind him with a bang that blew out two more, and he peered into the sudden gloom, pushing a hand through disheveled hair. I got up and relit the candles, making mild remarks about his abrupt methods of entering rooms. It was only when I had finished and turned to ask whether he’d like a drink, that I saw he was looking rather white and unsettled.

“What’s the matter?” I said. “Seen a ghost?”

“Well, you know,” he said slowly, “I’m not at all sure that I haven’t.” Absentmindedly, he picked up my hairbrush and raised it to tidy his hair. When a sudden whiff of L’Heure Bleu reached his nostrils, he wrinkled his nose and set it down again, settling for the attentions of his pocket comb instead.

I glanced through the window, where the elm trees were lashing to and fro like flails. A loose shutter was banging somewhere on the other side of the house, and it occurred to me that we ought perhaps to close our own, though the carry-on outside was rather exciting to watch.

“Bit blustery for a ghost, I’d think,” I said. “Don’t they like quiet, misty evenings in graveyards?”

Frank laughed a bit sheepishly. “Well, I daresay it’s only Bainbridge’s stories, plus a bit more of his sherry than I really meant to have. Nothing at all, likely.”

Now I was curious. “What exactly did you see?” I asked, settling myself on the dressing-table seat. I motioned to the whisky bottle with a half-lifted brow, and Frank went at once to pour a couple of drinks.

“Well, only a man, really,” he began, measuring out a jigger for himself and two for me. “Standing down in the road outside.”

“What, outside this house?” I laughed. “Must have been a ghost, then; I can’t feature any living person standing about on a night like this.”

Frank tilted the ewer over his glass, then looked accusingly at me when no water came out.

“Don’t look at me,” I said. “You used up all the water. I don’t mind neat, thought.” I took a sip in illustration.

Frank looked as though he were tempted to nip down to the lavatory for water, but abandoned the idea and went on with his story, sipping cautiously as though his glass contained vitriol, rather than the best Glenfiddich single malt whisky.

“Yes, he was down at the edge of the garden on this side, standing by the fence. I thought”—hesitated, looking down into his glass—“I rather thought he was looking up at your window.”

“My window? How extraordinary!” I couldn’t repress a mild shiver, and went across to fasten the shutters, though it seemed a bit late for that. Frank followed me across the room, still talking.

“Yes, I could see you myself from below. You were brushing your hair and cursing a bit because it was standing on end.”

“In that case, the fellow was probably enjoying a good laugh,” I said tartly. Frank shook his head, though he smiled and smoothed his hands over my hair.

“No, he wasn’t laughing. In fact, he seemed terribly unhappy about something. Not that I could see his face well; just something about the way he stood. I came up behind him, and when he didn’t move, I asked politely if I could help him with something. He acted at first as though he didn’t hear me, and I thought perhaps he didn’t, over the noise of the wind, so I repeated myself, and reached out to tap his shoulder, to get this attention, you know. But before I could touch him, he whirled suddenly round and pushed past me and walked off down the road.”

“Sounds a bit rude, but not very ghostly,” I observed, draining my glass. “What did he look like?”

“Big chap,” said Frank, frowning in recollection. “And a Scot, in complete Highland rig-out, complete to sporran and the most beautiful running-stag brooch on his plaid. I wanted to ask where he’d got it from, but he was off before I could.”

I went to the bureau and poured another drink. “Well, not so unusual an appearance for these parts, surely? I’ve seen men dressed like that in the village now and then.”

“Nooo…” Frank sounded doubtful. “No, it wasn’t his dress that was odd. But when he pushed past me, I could swear he was close enough that I should have felt him brush my sleeve—but I didn’t. And I was intrigued enough to turn around and watch him as he walked away. He walked down the Gereside Road, but when he’d almost reached the corner, he…disappeared. That’s when I began to feel a bit cold down the backbone.”

“Perhaps your attention was distracted for a second, and he just stepped aside into the shadows,” I suggested. “There are a lot of trees down near that corner.”

“I could swear I didn’t take my eyes off him for a moment,” muttered Frank. He looked up suddenly. “I know! I remember now why I thought he was so odd, though I didn’t realize it at the time.”

“What?” I was getting a bit tired of the ghost, and wanted to go on to more interesting matters, such as bed.

“The wind was cutting up like billy-o, but his drapes—his kilts and his plaid, you know—they didn’t move at all, except to the stir of his walking.”

We stared at each other. “Well, I said finally, “that is a bit spooky.”

Frank shrugged and smiled suddenly, dismissing it. “At least I’ll have something to tell the Vicar next time I see him. Perhaps it’s a well-known local ghost, and he can give me its gory history.” He glanced at his watch. “But now I’d say it’s bedtime.”

“So it is,” I murmured.

I watched him in the mirror as he removed his shirt and reached for a hanger. Suddenly he paused in mid-button.

“Did you have many Scots in your charge, Claire?” he asked abruptly. “At the field hospital, or at Pembroke?”

“Of course,” I replied, somewhat puzzled. “There were quite a few of the Seaforths and Camerons through the field hospital in Amiens, and then a bit later, after Caen, we had a lot of the Gordons. Nice chaps, most of them. Very stoic about things generally, but terrible cowards about injections.” I smiled, remembering one in particular.

“We had one—rather a crusty old thing really, a piper from the Third Seaforths—who couldn’t stand being stuck, especially not in the hip. He’d go for hours in the most awful discomfort before he’d let anyone near him with a needle, and even then he’d try to get us to give him the injection in the arm, though it’s meant to be intramuscular.” I laughed at the memory of Corporal Chisholm. “He told me, ‘If I’m goin’ to lie on my wi’ my buttocks bared, I want the lass under me, not behind me wi’ a hatpin!’”

Frank smiled, but looked a trifle uneasy, as he often did about my less delicate war stories. “Don’t worry,” I assured him, seeing the look, “I won’t tell that one at tea in the Senior Common Room.”

The smile lightened and he came forward to stand behind me as I sat at the dressing table. He pressed a kiss on the top of my head.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “The Senior Common Room will love you, no matter what stories you tell. Mmmm. Your hair smells wonderful.”

“Do you like it then?” His hands slid forward over my shoulders in answer, cupping my breasts in the thin nightdress. I could see his head above mine in the mirror, his chin resting on tope of my head.

“I like everything about you,” he said huskily. “You look wonderful by candlelight, you know. Your eyes are like sherry in crystal, and your skin glows like ivory. A candlelight witch, you are. Perhaps I should disconnect the lamps permanently.”

“Make it hard to read in bed,” I said, my heart beginning to speed up.

“I could think of better things to do in bed,” he murmured.

“Could you, indeed?” I said, rising and turning to put my arms about his neck. “Like what?”

***

Sometime later, cuddled close behind bolted shutters, I lifted my head from his shoulder and said, “Why did you ask me that earlier? About whether I’d had to do with any Scots, I mean—you must know I had, there all sorts of men through those hospitals.”

He stirred and ran a hand softly down my back.

“Mmm. Oh, nothing really. Just, when I saw that chap outside, it occurred to me he might be”—he hesitated, tightening his hold a bit—“er, you know, that he might have been someone you’d nursed, perhaps…maybe heard you were staying here, and came along to see…something like that.”

“In that case,” I said practically, “why wouldn’t he come in and ask to see me?”

“Well,” Frank’s voice was very casual, “maybe he didn’t want particularly to run into me.”

I pushed up onto one elbow, staring at him. We had left one candle burning, so I could see him well enough. He had turned his head, and was looking oh-so-casually off toward the chromolithograph of Bonnie Prince Charlie with which Mrs. Baird had seen fit to decorate our wall.

I grabbed his chin and turned his head to face me. He widened his eyes in simulated surprise.

“Are you implying,” I demanded, “that the man you saw outside was some sort of, of…” I hesitated, looking for the proper word.

“Liaison?” he suggested helpfully.

“Romantic interest of mine?” I finished.

“No, no, certainly not,” he said unconvincingly. He took my hands away from his face, and tried to kiss me, but now it was my turn for head-turning. He settled for pressing me back down to lie beside him.

“It’s only…” he began. “Well, you know, Claire, it was six years. And we saw each other only three times, and only just for the day that last time. It wouldn’t be unusual if…I mean, everyone knows doctors and nurses are under tremendous stress during emergencies, and…well, I…it’s just that…well, I’d understand, you know, if anything, er, of a spontaneous nature…”

I interrupted this rambling by jerking free and exploding out of bed.

“Do you think I’ve been unfaithful to you?” I demanded. “Do you? Because if so, you can leave this room this instant. Leave the house altogether! How dare you imply such a thing?” I was seething, and Frank, sitting up, reached out to try and soothe me.

“Don’t you touch me!” I snapped. “Just tell me—do you think, on the evidence of a strange man happening to glance up at my window, that I’ve had some flaming affair with one of my patients?”

Frank got out of bed and wrapped his arms around me. I stayed stiff as Lot’s wife, but he persisted, caressing my hair and rubbing my shoulders in the way he knew I liked.

“No, I don’t think any such thing,” he said firmly. He pulled me closer, and I relaxed slightly, though not enough to put my arms around him.

After a long time, he murmured into my hair, “No, I know you’d never do such a thing. I only meant to say that even if you ever did…Claire, it would make no difference to me. I love you so. Nothing you ever did could stop my loving you.” He took my face between his hands –only four inches taller than I, he could look directly into my eyes without trouble—and said softly, “Forgive me?” His breath, barely scented with the tang of Glenfiddich, was warm on my face, and his lips, full and inviting, were disturbingly close.

Another flash from outside heralded the sudden breaking of the storm, and a thundering rain smashed down on the slates of the roof.

I slowly put my arms around his waist.

“‘The quality of mercy is not strained,’” I quoted. “‘It droppeth as the gentle dew from heaven…’”

Frank laughed and looked upward; the overlapping stains on the ceiling boded ill for the prospects of our sleeping dry all night.

“If that’s a sample of your mercy,” he said, “I’d hate to see your vengeance.” The thunder went off like a mortar attack, as though in answer to his words, and we both laughed, at ease again.

It was only later, listening to the regular deep breathing beside me, that I began to wonder. As I had said, there was no evidence whatsoever to imply unfaithfulness on my part. My part. But six years, as he’d said, was a long time.