Actions & Adventure
History & Fiction
Thrillers & Crime
Romance & Love
Mystery & Detective
Actions & Adventure
History & Fiction
Thrillers & Crime
Romance & Love
Mystery & Detective
Time News Roman
* * *
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 are 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, and 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 to 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 his 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.
Mr. Crook called for me, as arranged, promptly at seven the next morning.
“So as we’ll catch the dew on the buttercups, eh, lass?” he said, twinkling with elderly gallantry. He had brought a motorcycle of his own approximate vintage, on which to transport us into the countryside. The plant presses were tidily strapped to the sides of this enormous machine, like bumpers on a tugboat. It was a leisurely ramble through the quiet countryside, made all the more quiet by contrast with the thunderous roar of Mr. Crook’s cycle, suddenly throttled into silence. The old man did indeed know a lot about the local plants, I discovered. Not only where they were to be found but their medicinal uses, and how to prepare them. I wished I had brought a notebook to get it all down, but listened intently to the cracked old voice, and did my best to commit the information to memory as I stowed our specimens in the heavy plant presses.
We stopped for a packed luncheon near the base of a curious flat-topped hill. Green as most of its neighbors, with the same rocky juts and crags, it had something different: a well-worn path leading up one side and disappearing abruptly behind a granite outcrop.
“What’s up there?” I asked, gesturing with a ham sandwich. “It seems a difficult place for picnicking.”
“Ah.” Mr. Crook glanced at the hill. “That’s Craigh na Dun, lass. I’d meant to show ye after our meal.”
“Really? Is there something special about it?”
“Oh, aye,” he answered, but refused to elaborate further, merely saying that I’d see when I saw.
I had some fears about his ability to climb such a steep path, but these evaporated as I found myself panting in his wake. At last, Mr. Crook extended a gnarled hand and pulled me up over the rim of the hill.
“There ’tis.” He waved a hand with a sort of proprietorial gesture.
“Why, it’s a henge!” I said, delighted. “A miniature henge!”
Because of the war, it had been several years since I had last visited Salisbury Plain, but Frank and I had seen Stonehenge soon after we were married. Like the other tourists wandering awed among the huge standing stones, we had gaped at the Altar Stone (‘w’ere ancient Druid priests performed their dreadful ’uman sacrifices,’ announced the sonorous Cockney tour guide accompanying a busload of Italian tourists, who all dutifully took photographs of the rather ordinary-looking stone block).
Out of the same passion for exactness that made Frank adjust his ties on the hanger so that the ends hung precisely even, we had even trekked around the circumference of the circle, pacing off the distance between the Z holes and the Y holes, and counting the lintels in the Sarsen Circle, the outermost ring of monstrous uprights.
Three hours later, we knew how many Y and Z holes there were (fifty-nine, if you care; I didn’t), but had no more clue to the purpose of the structure than had the dozens of amateur and professional archaeologists who had crawled over the site for the last five hundred years.
No lack of opinions, of course. Life among academics had taught me that a well-expressed opinion is usually better than a badly expressed fact, so far as professional advancement goes.
A temple. A burial ground. An astronomical observatory. A place of execution (hence the inaptly named “Slaughter Stone” that lies to one side, half sunk in its own pit). An open-air market. I liked this last suggestion, visualizing Megalithic housewives strolling between the lintels, baskets on their arms, critically judging the glaze on the latest shipment of red-clay beakers and listening skeptically to the claims of stone-age bakers and vendors of deer-bone shovels and amber beads.
The only thing I could see against that hypothesis was the presence of bodies under the Altar Stone and cremated remains in the Z holes. Unless these were the hapless remains of merchants accused of short-weighting the customers, it seemed a bit unsanitary to be burying people in the marketplace.
There were no signs of burial in the miniature henge atop the hill. By “miniature,” I mean only that the circle of standing stones was smaller than Stonehenge; each stone was still twice my own height, and massive in proportion.
I had heard from another tour-guide at Stonehenge that these stone circles occur all over Britain and Europe—some in better repair than others, some differing slightly in orientation or form, all of purpose and origin unknown.
Mr. Crook stood smiling benignly as I prowled among the stones, pausing now and then to touch one gently, as though my touch could make an impression on the monumental boulders.
Some of the standing stones were brindled, striped with dim colors. Others were speckled with flakes of mica that caught the morning sun with a cheerful shimmer. All of them were remarkably different from the clumps of native stone that thrust out of the bracken all around. Whoever built the stone circles, and for whatever purpose, thought it important enough to have quarried, shaped, and transported special stone blocks for the erection of their testimonial. Shaped—how? Transported—how, and from what unimaginable distance?
“My husband would be fascinated,” I told Mr. Crook, stopping to thank him for showing me the place and the plants. “I’ll bring him up to see it later.” The gnarled old man gallantly offered me an arm at the top of the trail. I took it, deciding after one look down the precipitous decline that in spite of his age, he was likely steadier on his pins than I was.
* * *
I swung down the road that afternoon toward the village, to fetch Frank from the vicarage. I happily breathed in that heady Highland mix of heather, sage, and broom, spiced here and there with chimney smoke and the tang of fried herring, as I passed the scattered cottages. The village lay nestled in a small declivity at the foot of one of those soaring crags that rise so steeply from the Highland moors. Those cottages near the road were nice. The bloom of postwar prosperity had spread as far as a new coat of paint, and even the manse, which must be at least a hundred years old, sported bright yellow trim around its sagging windowframes.
The vicar’s housekeeper answered the door, a tall, stringy woman with three strands of artificial pearls round her neck. Hearing who I was, she welcomed me in and towed me down a long, narrow, dark hallway, lined with sepia engravings of people who may have been famous personages of their time, or cherished relatives of the present vicar, but might as well have been the Royal Family, for all I could see of their features in the gloom.
By contrast, the vicar’s study was blinding with light from the enormous windows that ran nearly from ceiling to floor in one wall. An easel near the fireplace, bearing a half-finished oil of black cliffs against the evening sky, showed the reason for the windows, which must have been added long after the house was built.
Frank and a short, tubby man with a clerical dog-collar were cozily poring over a mass of tattered paper on the desk by the far wall. Frank barely looked up in greeting, but the vicar politely left off his explanations and hurried over to clasp my hand, his round face beaming with sociable delight.
“Mrs. Randall!” he said, pumping my hand heartily. “How nice to see you again. And you’ve come just in time to hear the news!”
“News?” Casting an eye on the grubbiness and typeface of the papers on the desk, I calculated the date of the news in question as being likely around 1750. Not precisely stop-the-presses, then.
“Yes, indeed. We’ve been tracing your husband’s ancestor, Jack Randall, through the army dispatches of the period.” The vicar leaned close, speaking out of the side of his mouth like a gangster in an American film. “I’ve, er, ‘borrowed’ the original dispatches from the local Historical Society files. You’ll be careful not to tell anyone?”
Amused, I agreed that I would not reveal his deadly secret, and looked about for a comfortable chair in which to receive the latest revelations from the eighteenth century. The wing chair nearest the windows looked suitable, but as I reached to turn it toward the desk, I discovered that it was already occupied. The inhabitant, a small boy with a shock of glossy black hair, was curled up in the depths of the chair, sound asleep.
“Roger!” The vicar, coming to assist me, was as surprised as I. The boy, startled out of sleep, shot bolt upright, wide eyes the color of moss.
“Now what are you up to in here, you young scamp?” The vicar was scolding affectionately. “Oh, fell asleep reading the comic papers again?” He scooped up the brightly colored pages and handed them to the lad. “Run along now, Roger, I have business with the Randalls. Oh, wait, I’ve forgotten to introduce you—Mrs. Randall, this is my son, Roger.”
I was a bit surprised. If ever I’d seen a confirmed bachelor, I would have thought the Reverend Wakefield was it. Still, I took the politely proffered paw and shook it warmly, resisting the urge to wipe a certain residual stickiness on my skirt.
The Reverend Wakefield looked fondly after the boy as he trooped off toward the kitchen.
“My niece’s son, really,” he confided. “Father shot down over the Channel, and mother killed in the Blitz, though, so I’ve taken him.”
“How kind of you,” I murmured, thinking of Uncle Lamb. He, too, had died in the Blitz, killed by a hit to the auditorium of the British Museum, where he had been lecturing. Knowing him, I thought his main feeling would have been gratification that the wing of Persian antiquities next door had escaped.
“Not at all, not at all.” The vicar flapped a hand in embarrassment. “Nice to have a bit of young life about the house. Now, do have a seat.”
Frank began talking even before I had set my handbag down. “The most amazing luck, Claire,” he enthused, thumbing through the dog-eared pile. “The vicar’s located a whole series of military dispatches that mention Jonathan Randall.”
“Well, a good deal of the prominence seems to have been Captain Randall’s own doing,” the vicar observed, taking some of the papers from Frank. “He was in command of the garrison at Fort William for four years or so, but he seems to have spent quite a bit of his time harassing the Scottish countryside above the Border on behalf of the Crown. This lot”—he gingerly separated a stack of papers and laid them on the desk—“is reports of complaints lodged against the Captain by various families and estate holders, claiming everything from interference with their maidservants by the soldiers of the garrison to outright theft of horses, not to mention assorted instances of ‘insult,’ unspecified.”
I was amused. “So you have the proverbial horse thief in your family tree?” I said to Frank.
He shrugged, unperturbed. “He was what he was, and nothing I can do about it. I only want to find out. The complaints aren’t all that odd, for that particular time period; the English in general, and the army in particular, were rather notably unpopular throughout the Highlands. No, what’s odd is that nothing ever seems to have come of the complaints, even the serious ones.”
The vicar, unable to keep still for long, broke in. “That’s right. Not that officers then were held to anything like modern standards; they could do very much as they liked in minor matters. But this is odd. It’s not that the complaints are investigated and dismissed; they’re just never mentioned again. You know what I suspect, Randall? Your ancestor must have had a patron. Someone who could protect him from the censure of his superiors.”
Frank scratched his head, squinting at the dispatches. “You could be right. Had to have been someone quite powerful, though. High up in the army hierarchy, perhaps, or maybe a member of the nobility.”
“Yes, or possibly—” The vicar was interrupted in his theories by the entrance of the housekeeper, Mrs. Graham.
“I’ve brought ye a wee bit of refreshment, gentlemen,” she announced, setting the tea tray firmly in the center of the desk, from which the vicar rescued his precious dispatches in the nick of time. She looked me over with a shrewd eye, assessing the twitching limbs and faint glaze over the eyeballs.
“I’ve brought but the two cups, for I thought perhaps Mrs. Randall would care to join me in the kitchen. I’ve a bit of—” I didn’t wait for the conclusion of her invitation, but leapt to my feet with alacrity. I could hear the theories breaking out again behind me as we pushed through the swinging door that led to the manse’s kitchen.
The tea was green, hot and fragrant, with bits of leaf swirling through the liquid.
“Mmm,” I said, setting the cup down. “It’s been a long time since I tasted Oolong.”
Mrs. Graham nodded, beaming at my pleasure in her refreshments. She had clearly gone to some trouble, laying out handmade lace mats beneath the eggshell cups and providing thick clotted cream with the scones.
“Aye, I couldna get it during the War, ye know. It’s the best for the readings, though. Had a terrible time with that Earl Grey. The leaves fall apart so fast, it’s hard to tell anything at all.”
“Oh, you read tea leaves?” I asked, mildly amused. Nothing could be farther from the popular conception of the gypsy fortune-teller than Mrs. Graham, with her short, iron-grey perm and triple-stranded pearl choker. A swallow of tea ran visibly down the long, stringy neck and disappeared beneath the gleaming beads.
“Why, certainly I do, my dear. Just as my grandmother taught me, and her grandmother before her. Drink up your cup, and I’ll see what you have there.”
She was silent for a long time, once in a while tilting the cup to catch the light, or rolling it slowly between lean palms to get a different angle.
She set the cup down carefully, as though afraid it might blow up in her face. The grooves on either side of her mouth had deepened, and her brows pressed together in what looked like puzzlement.
“Well,” she said finally. “That’s one of the stranger ones I’ve seen.”
“Oh?” I was still amused, but beginning to be curious. “Am I going to meet a tall dark stranger, or journey across the sea?”
“Could be.” Mrs. Graham had caught my ironic tone, and echoed it, smiling slightly. “And could not. That’s what’s odd about your cup, my dear. Everything in it’s contradictory. There’s the curved leaf for a journey, but it’s crossed by the broken one that means staying put. And strangers there are, to be sure, several of them. And one of them’s your husband, if I read the leaves aright.”
My amusement dissipated somewhat. After six years apart, and six months together, my husband was still something of a stranger. Though I failed to see how a tea leaf could know it.
Mrs. Graham’s brow was still furrowed. “Let me see your hand, child,” she said.
The hand holding mine was bony, but surprisingly warm. A scent of lavender water emanated from the neat part of the grizzled head bent over my palm. She stared into my hand for quite a long time, now and then tracing one of the lines with a finger, as though following a map whose roads all petered out in sandy washes and deserted wastes.
“Well, what is it?” I asked, trying to maintain a light air. “Or is my fate too horrible to be revealed?”
Mrs. Graham raised quizzical eyes and looked thoughtfully at my face, but retained her hold on my hand. She shook her head, pursing her lips.
“Oh, no, my dear. It’s not your fate is in your hand. Only the seed of it.” The birdlike head cocked to one side, considering. “The lines in your hand change, ye know. At another point in your life, they may be quite different than they are now.”
“I didn’t know that. I thought you were born with them, and that was that.” I was repressing an urge to jerk my hand away. “What’s the point of palm reading, then?” I didn’t wish to sound rude, but I found this scrutiny a bit unsettling, especially following on the heels of that tea-leaf reading. Mrs. Graham smiled unexpectedly, and folded my fingers closed over my palm.
“Why, the lines of your palm show what ye are, dear. That’s why they change—or should. They don’t, in some people; those unlucky enough never to change in themselves, but there are few like that.” She gave my folded hand a squeeze and patted it. “I doubt that you’re one of those. Your hand shows quite a lot of change already, for one so young. That would likely be the War, of course,” she said, as though to herself.
I was curious again, and opened my palm voluntarily.
“What am I, then, according to my hand?”
Mrs. Graham frowned, but did not pick up my hand again.
“I canna just say. It’s odd, for most hands have a likeness to them. Mind, I’d no just say that it’s ‘see one, you’ve seen them all,’ but it’s often like that—there are patterns, you know.” She smiled suddenly, an oddly engaging grin, displaying very white and patently false teeth.
“That’s how a fortune-teller works, you know. I do it for the church fete every year—or did, before the War; suppose I’ll do it again now. But a girl comes into the tent—and there am I, done up in a turban with a peacock feather borrowed from Mr. Donaldson, and ‘robes of oriental splendor’—that’s the vicar’s dressing gown, all over peacocks it is and yellow as the sun—anyway, I look her over while I pretend to be watching her hand, and I see she’s got her blouse cut down to her breakfast, cheap scent, and earrings down to her shoulders. I needn’t have a crystal ball to be tellin’ her she’ll have a child before the next year’s fete.” Mrs. Graham, paused, grey eyes alight with mischief. “Though if the hand you’re holding is bare, it’s tactful to predict first that she’ll marry soon.”
I laughed, and so did she. “So you don’t look at their hands at all, then?” I asked. “Except to check for rings?”
She looked surprised. “Oh, of course you do. It’s just that you know ahead of time what you’ll see. Generally.” She nodded at my open hand. “But that is not a pattern I’ve seen before. The large thumb, now”—she did lean forward then and touch it lightly—“that wouldn’t change much. Means you’re strong-minded, and have a will not easily crossed.” She twinkled at me. “Reckon your husband could have told ye that. Likewise about that one.” She pointed to the fleshy mound at the base of the thumb.
“What is it?”
“The Mount of Venus, it’s called.” She pursed her thin lips primly together, though the corners turned irrepressibly up. “In a man, ye’d say it means he likes the lasses. For a woman, ’tis a bit different. To be polite about it, I’ll make a