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Dragonfly in Amber, Page 2

Diana Gabaldon

  “That’s a very helpful idea,” Roger said, mildly surprised. “It’s the sort of thing an historian would think of.”

  “I’m hardly an historian,” Claire Randall said dryly. “On the other hand, when you live with one, you do pick up the occasional odd thought.”

  “Of course.” A thought struck Roger, and he rose from his chair. “I’m being a terrible host; please, let me get you a drink, and then you can tell me a bit more about this. Perhaps I could help you with it myself.”

  Despite the disorder, he knew where the decanters were kept, and quickly had his guests supplied with whisky. He’d put quite a lot of soda in Brianna’s, but noticed that she sipped at it as though her glass contained ant spray, rather than the best Glenfiddich single malt. Claire, who took her whisky neat by request, seemed to enjoy it much more.

  “Well.” Roger resumed his seat and picked up the paper again. “It’s an interesting problem, in terms of historical research. You said these men came from the same parish? I suppose they came from a single clan or sept—I see a number of them were named Fraser.”

  Claire nodded, hands folded in her lap. “They came from the same estate; a small Highland farm called Broch Tuarach—it was known locally as Lallybroch. They were part of clan Fraser, though they never gave a formal allegiance to Lord Lovat as chief. These men joined the Rising early; they fought in the Battle of Prestonpans—while Lovat’s men didn’t come until just before Culloden.”

  “Really? That’s interesting.” Under normal eighteenth-century conditions, such small tenant-farmers would have died where they lived, and be filed tidily away in the village churchyard, neatly docketed in the parish register. However, Bonnie Prince Charlie’s attempt to regain the throne of Scotland in 1745 had disrupted the normal course of things in no uncertain terms.

  In the famine after the disaster of Culloden, many Highlanders had emigrated to the New World; others had drifted from the glens and moors toward the cities, in search of food and employment. A few stayed on, stubbornly clinging to their land and traditions.

  “It would make a fascinating article,” Roger said, thinking aloud. “Follow the fate of a number of individuals, see what happened to them all. Less interesting if they all were killed at Culloden, but chances were that a few made it out.” He would be inclined to take on the project as a welcome break even were it not Claire Randall who asked.

  “Yes, I think I can help you with this,” he said, and was gratified at the warm smile she bestowed on him.

  “Would you really? That’s wonderful!” she said.

  “My pleasure,” Roger said. He folded the paper and laid it on the table. “I’ll start in on it directly. But tell me, how did you enjoy your drive up from London?”

  The conversation became general as the Randalls regaled him with tales of their transatlantic journey, and the drive from London. Roger’s attention drifted slightly, as he began to plan the research for this project. He felt mildly guilty about taking it on; he really shouldn’t take the time. On the other hand, it was an interesting question. And it was possible that he could combine the project with some of the necessary clearing-up of the Reverend’s material; he knew for a fact that there were forty-eight cartons in the garage, all labeled JACOBITES, MISCELLANEOUS. The thought of it was enough to make him feel faint.

  With a wrench, he tore his mind away from the garage, to find that the conversation had made an abrupt change of subject.

  “Druids?” Roger felt dazed. He peered suspiciously into his glass, checking to see that he really had added soda.

  “You hadn’t heard about them?” Claire looked slightly disappointed. “Your father—the Reverend—he knew about them, though only unofficially. Perhaps he didn’t think it worth telling you; he thought it something of a joke.”

  Roger scratched his head, ruffling the thick black hair. “No, I really don’t recall. But you’re right, he may not have thought it anything serious.”

  “Well, I don’t know that it is.” She crossed her legs at the knee. A streak of sunlight gleamed down the shin of her stockings, emphasizing the delicacy of the long bone beneath.

  “When I was here last with Frank—God, that was twenty-three years ago!—the Reverend told him that there was a local group of—well, modern Druids, I suppose you’d call them. I’ve no idea how authentic they might be; most likely not very.” Brianna was leaning forward now, interested, the glass of whisky forgotten between her hands.

  “The Reverend couldn’t take official notice of them—paganism and all that, you know—but his housekeeper, Mrs. Graham, was involved with the group, so he got wind of their doings from time to time, and he tipped Frank that there would be a ceremony of some kind on the dawn of Beltane—May Day, that is.”

  Roger nodded, trying to adjust to the idea of elderly Mrs. Graham, that extremely proper person, engaging in pagan rites and dancing round stone circles in the dawn. All he could remember of Druid ceremonies himself was that some of them involved burning sacrificial victims in wicker cages, which seemed still more unlikely behavior for a Scottish Presbyterian lady of advanced years.

  “There’s a circle of standing stones on top of a hill, fairly nearby. So we went up there before dawn to, well, to spy on them,” she continued, shrugging apologetically. “You know what scholars are like; no conscience at all when it comes to their own field, let alone a sense of social delicacy.” Roger winced slightly at this, but nodded in wry agreement.

  “And there they were,” she said. “Mrs. Graham included, all wearing bedsheets, chanting things and dancing in the midst of the stone circle. Frank was fascinated,” she added, with a smile. “And it was impressive, even to me.”

  She paused for a moment, eyeing Roger rather speculatively.

  “I’d heard that Mrs. Graham had passed away a few years ago. But I wonder…do you know if she had any family? I believe membership in such groups is often hereditary; maybe there’s a daughter or granddaughter who could tell me a bit.”

  “Well,” Roger said slowly. “There is a granddaughter—Fiona’s her name, Fiona Graham. In fact, she came to help out here at the manse after her grandmother died; the Reverend was really too elderly to be left all on his own.”

  If anything could displace his vision of Mrs. Graham dancing in a bedsheet, it was the thought of nineteen-year-old Fiona as a guardian of ancient mystic knowledge, but Roger rallied gamely and went on.

  “She isn’t here just now, I’m afraid. I could ask her for you, though.”

  Claire waved a slender hand in dismissal. “Don’t trouble yourself. Another time will do. We’ve taken up too much of your time already.”

  To Roger’s dismay, she set down her empty glass on the small table between the chairs and Brianna added her own full one with what looked like alacrity. He noticed that Brianna Randall bit her nails. This small evidence of imperfection gave him the nerve to take the next step. She intrigued him, and he didn’t want her to go, with no assurance that he would see her again.

  “Speaking of stone circles,” he said quickly. “I believe I know the one you mentioned. It’s quite scenic, and not too far from town.” He smiled directly at Brianna Randall, registering automatically the fact that she had three small freckles high on one cheekbone. “I thought perhaps I’d start on this project with a trip down to Broch Tuarach. It’s in the same direction as the stone circle, so maybe…aaagh!”

  With a sudden jerk of her bulky handbag, Claire Randall had bumped both whisky glasses off the table, showering Roger’s lap and thighs with single malt whisky and quite a lot of soda.

  “I’m terribly sorry,” she apologized, obviously flustered. She bent and began picking up pieces of shattered crystal, despite Roger’s half-coherent attempts to stop her.

  Brianna, coming to assist with a handful of linen napkins seized from the sideboard, was saying “Really, Mother, how they ever let you do surgery, I don’t know. You’re just not safe with anything smaller than a bread-box. Look, you’ve got his
shoes soaked with whisky!” She knelt on the floor, and began busily mopping up spilled Scotch and fragments of crystal. “And his pants, too.”

  Whipping a fresh napkin from the stack over her arm, she industriously polished Roger’s toes, her red mane floating deliriously around his knees. Her head was rising, as she peered at his thighs, dabbing energetically at damp spots on the corduroy. Roger closed his eyes and thought frantically of terrible car crashes on the motorway and tax forms for the Inland Revenue and the Blob from Outer Space—anything that might stop him disgracing himself utterly as Brianna Randall’s warm breath misted softly through the wet fabric of his trousers.

  “Er, maybe you’d like to do the rest yourself?” The voice came from somewhere around the level of his nose, and he opened his eyes to find a pair of deep blue eyes facing him above a wide grin. He rather weakly took the napkin she was offering him, breathing as though he had just been chased by a train.

  Lowering his head to scrub at his trousers, he caught sight of Claire Randall watching him with an expression of mingled sympathy and amusement. There was nothing else visible in her expression; nothing of that flash he thought he’d seen in her eyes just before the catastrophe. Flustered as he was, it was probably his imagination, he thought. For why on earth should she have done it on purpose?

  “Since when are you interested in Druids, Mama?” Brianna seemed disposed to find something hilarious in the idea; I had noticed her biting the insides of her cheeks while I was chatting with Roger Wakefield, and the grin she had been hiding then was now plastered across her face. “You going to get your own bedsheet and join up?”

  “Bound to be more entertaining than hospital staff meetings every Thursday,” I said. “Bit drafty, though.” She hooted with laughter, startling two chickadees off the walk in front of us.

  “No,” I said, switching to seriousness. “It isn’t the Druid ladies I’m after, so much. There’s someone I used to know in Scotland that I wanted to find, if I can. I haven’t an address for her—I haven’t been in touch with her for more than twenty years—but she had an interest in odd things like that: witchcraft, old beliefs, folklore. All that sort of thing. She once lived near here; I thought if she was still here, she might be involved with a group like that.”

  “What’s her name?”

  I shook my head, grabbing at the loosened clip as it slid from my curls. It slipped through my fingers and bounced into the deep grass along the walk.

  “Damn!” I said, stooping for it. My fingers were unsteady as I groped through the dense stalks, and I had trouble picking up the clip, slippery with moisture from the wet grass. The thought of Geillis Duncan tended to unnerve me, even now.

  “I don’t know,” I said, brushing the curls back off my flushed face. “I mean—it’s been such a long time, I’m sure she’d have a different name by now. She was widowed; she might have married again, or be using her maiden name.”

  “Oh.” Brianna lost interest in the topic, and walked along in silence for a little. Suddenly she said, “What did you think of Roger Wakefield, Mama?”

  I glanced at her; her cheeks were pink, but it might be from the spring wind.

  “He seems a very nice young man,” I said carefully. “He’s certainly intelligent; he’s one of the youngest professors at Oxford.” The intelligence I had known about; I wondered whether he had any imagination. So often scholarly types didn’t. But imagination would be helpful.

  “He’s got the grooviest eyes,” Brianna said, dreamily ignoring the question of his brain. “Aren’t they the greenest you’ve ever seen?”

  “Yes, they’re very striking,” I agreed. “They’ve always been like that; I remember noticing them when I first met him as a child.”

  Brianna looked down at me, frowning.

  “Yes, Mother, really! Did you have to say ‘My, how you’ve grown?’ when he answered the door? How embarrassing!”

  I laughed.

  “Well, when you’ve last seen someone hovering round your navel, and suddenly you find yourself looking up his nose,” I defended myself, “you can’t help remarking the difference.”

  “Mother!” But she fizzed with laughter.

  “He has a very nice bottom, too,” I remarked, just to keep her going. “I noticed when he bent over to get the whisky.”

  “Mo-THERRR! They’ll hear you!”

  We were nearly at the bus stop. There were two or three women and an elderly gentleman in tweeds standing by the sign; they turned to stare at us as we came up.

  “Is this the place for the Loch-side Tours bus?” I asked, scanning the bewildering array of notices and advertisements posted on the signboard.

  “Och, aye,” one of the ladies said kindly. “The bus will be comin’ along in ten minutes or so.” She scanned Brianna, so clearly American in blue jeans and white windbreaker. The final patriotic note was added by the flushed face, red with suppressed laughter. “You’ll be going to see Loch Ness? Your first time, is it?”

  I smiled at her. “I sailed down the loch with my husband twenty-odd years ago, but this is my daughter’s first trip to Scotland.”

  “Oh, is it?” This attracted the attention of the other ladies and they crowded around, suddenly friendly, offering advice and asking questions until the big yellow bus came chugging round the corner.

  Brianna paused before climbing the steps, admiring the picturesque drawing of green serpentine loops, undulating through a blue-paint lake, edged with black pines.

  “This will be fun,” she said, laughing. “Think we’ll see the monster?”

  “You never know,” I said.

  Roger spent the rest of the day in a state of abstraction, wandering absently from one task to another. The books to be packed for donation to the Society for the Preservation of Antiquities lay spilling out of their carton, the Reverend’s ancient flatbed lorry sat in the drive with its bonnet up, halfway through a motor check, and a cup of tea sat half-drunk and milk-scummed at his elbow as he gazed blankly out at the falling rain of early evening.

  What he should do, he knew, was get at the job of dismantling the heart of the Reverend’s study. Not the books; massive as that job was, it was only a matter of deciding which to keep himself, and which should be dispatched to the SPA or the Reverend’s old college library. No, sooner or later he would have to tackle the enormous desk, which had papers filling each huge drawer to the brim and protruding from its dozens of pigeonholes. And he’d have to take down and dispose of all of the miscellany decorating the cork wall that filled one side of the room; a task to daunt the stoutest heart.

  Aside from a general disinclination to start the tedious job, Roger was hampered by something else. He didn’t want to be doing these things, necessary as they were; he wanted to be working on Claire Randall’s project, tracking down the clansmen of Culloden.

  It was an interesting enough project in its way, though probably a minor research job. But that wasn’t it. No, he thought, if he were being honest with himself, he wanted to tackle Claire Randall’s project because he wanted to go round to Mrs. Thomas’s guesthouse and lay his results at the feet of Brianna Randall, as knights were supposed to have done with the heads of dragons. Even if he didn’t get results on that scale, he urgently wanted some excuse to see her and talk with her again.

  It was a Bronzino painting she reminded him of, he decided. She and her mother both gave that odd impression of having been outlined somehow, drawn with such vivid strokes and delicate detail that they stood out from their background as though they’d been engraved on it. But Brianna had that brilliant coloring, and that air of absolute physical presence that made Bronzino’s sitters seem to follow you with their eyes, to be about to speak from their frames. He’d never seen a Bronzino painting making faces at a glass of whisky, but if there had been one, he was sure it would have looked precisely like Brianna Randall.

  “Well, bloody hell,” he said aloud. “It won’t take a lot of time just to look over the records at Culloden House
tomorrow, will it? You,” he said, addressing the desk and its multiple burdens, “can wait for a day. So can you,” he said to the wall, and defiantly plucked a mystery novel from the shelf. He glanced around belligerently, as though daring any of the furnishings to object, but there was no sound but the whirring of the electric fire. He switched it off and, book under his arm, left the study, flicking off the light.

  A minute later, he came back, crossing the room in the dark, and retrieved the list of names from the table.

  “Well, bloody hell anyway!” he said, and tucked it into the pocket of his shirt. “Don’t want to forget the damn thing in the morning.” He patted the pocket, feeling the soft crackle of the paper just over his heart, and went up to bed.

  We had come back from Loch Ness blown with wind and chilled with rain, to the warm comfort of a hot supper and an open fire in the parlor. Brianna had begun to yawn over the scrambled eggs, and soon excused herself to go and take a hot bath. I stayed downstairs for a bit, chatting with Mrs. Thomas, the landlady, and it was nearly ten o’clock before I made my way up to my own bath and nightgown.