Outlander, p.54
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       Outlander, p.54
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         Part #1 of Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon

  suppress my giggling. “Or your grandmother’s?”

  “My father’s,” he said coldly, looking down his nose at me. “Ye dinna expect me to be swimming bare as an egg before my wife and my tenants, do ye?”

  With considerable dignity, he gathered the excess material up in one hand and waded into the millpond. Treading water near the wheel, he took his bearings, then with a deep breath, upended and submerged, my last sight of him the ballooning bottom of the red flannel drawers. The miller, leaning out of the millhouse window, shouted encouragement and directions whenever the sleek wet head broke the surface for air.

  The edge of the pond bank was thick with water plants, and I foraged with my digging stick for mallow root and the small, fine-leaved dropwort. I had half the basket filled when I heard a polite cough behind me.

  She was a very old lady indeed, or at least she looked it. She leaned on a hawthorn stick, enveloped in garments she must have worn twenty years before, now much too voluminous for the shrunken frame inside them.

  “Good morn to ye,” she said, nodding a head like a bobbin. She wore a starched white kertch that hid most of her hair, but a few wisps of iron-grey peeped out beside cheeks like withered apples.

  “Good morning,” I said, and started to scramble up, but she advanced a few steps and sank down beside me with surprising grace. I hoped she could get up again.

  “I’m—” I started, but had barely opened my mouth when she interrupted.

  “Ye’ll be the new lady, o’ course. I’m Mrs. MacNab—Grannie MacNab, they call me, along o’ my daughters-in-law all bein’ Mrs. MacNabs as weel.” She reached out a skinny hand and pulled my basket toward her, peering into it.

  “Mallow root—ah, that’s good for cough. But ye dinna want to use that one, lassie.” She poked at a small brownish tuber. “Looks like lily root, but it isna that.”

  “What is it?” I asked.

  “Adder’s-tongue. Eat that one, lassie, and ye’ll be rollin’ round the room wi’ your heels behind yer head.” She plucked the tuber from the basket and threw it into the pond with a splash. She pulled the basket onto her lap and pawed expertly through the remaining plants, while I watched with a mixture of amusement and irritation. At last, satisfied, she handed it back.

  “Weel, you’re none sae foolish, for a Sassenach lassie,” she remarked. “Ye ken betony from lamb’s-quarters, at least.” She cast a glance toward the pond, where Jamie’s head appeared briefly, sleek as a seal, before disappearing once again beneath the millhouse. “I see his lairdship didna wed ye for your face alone.”

  “Thank you,” I said, choosing to construe this as a compliment. The old lady’s eyes, sharp as needles, were fastened on my midsection.

  “Not wi’ child yet?” she demanded. “Raspberry leaves, that’s the thing. Steep a handful wi’ rosehips and drink it when the moon’s waxing, from the quarter to the full. Then when it wanes from the full to the half, take a bit o’ barberry to purge your womb.”

  “Oh,” I said, “well—”

  “I’d a bit of a favor to ask his lairdship,” the old lady went on. “But as I see he’s a bit occupied at present, I’ll tell you about it.”

  “All right,” I agreed weakly, not seeing how I could stop her anyway.

  “It’s my grandson,” she said, fixing me with small grey eyes the size and shininess of marbles. “My grandson Rabbie, that is; I’ve sixteen altogether, and the three o’ them named Robert, but the one’s Bob and t’other Rob, and the wee one’s Rabbie.”

  “Congratulations,” I said politely.

  “I want his lairdship to take the lad on as stable lad,” she went on.

  “Well, I can’t say—”

  “It’s his father, ye ken,” she said, leaning forward confidentially. “Not as I’ll say there’s aught wrong wi’ a bit o’ firmness; spare the rod and spoil the child, I’ve said often enough, and the good Lord kens weel enough that boys were meant to be smacked, or he’d not ha’ filled ’em sae full o’ the de’il. But when it comes to layin’ a child out on the hearth, and a bruise on his face the size o’ my hand, and for naught more than takin’ an extra bannock from the platter, then—”

  “Rabbie’s father beats him, you mean?” I interrupted.

  The old lady nodded, pleased with my ready intelligence. “To be sure. Is that no what I’ve been sayin’?” She held up a hand. “Now, in the regular way, o’ course I’d not interfere. A man’s son’s his ain to do as he sees fit wi’, but…weel, Rabbie’s a bit of a favorite o’ mine. And it’s no the lad’s fault as his father’s a drunken sot, shameful as ’tis for his own mither to say such a thing.”

  She raised an admonitory finger like a stick. “Not but what Ronald’s father didna take a drop too much from time to time. But lay a hand on me or the bairns he never did—not after the first time, at any rate,” she added thoughtfully. She twinkled suddenly at me, little cheeks round and firm as summer apples, so I could see what a very lively and attractive girl she must have been.

  “He struck me the once,” she confided, “and I snatched the girdle off the fire and crowned him wi’ it.” She rocked back and forth, laughing. “Thought I’d kilt him for sure, and me wailin’ and holdin’ of his heid in my lap, thinkin’ what would I do, a widow wi’ twa bairns to feed? But he came round,” she said matter-of-factly, “and ne’er laid a hand on me or the bairnies again. I bore thirteen, ye ken,” she said proudly. “And raised ten.”

  “Congratulations,” I said, meaning it.

  “Raspberry leaves,” she said, laying a confiding hand on my knee. “Mark me, lassie, raspberry leaves will do it. And if not, come to see me, and I’ll make ye a bittie drink o’ coneflower and marrow seed, wi’ a raw egg beaten up in it. That’ll draw yer man’s seed straight up into the womb, ye ken, and you’ll be swellin’ like a pumpkin by Easter.”

  I coughed, growing a bit red in the face. “Mmmphm. And you want Jamie, er, his lairdship I mean, to take your grandson into his house as stable lad, to get him away from his father?”

  “Aye, that’s it. Now he’s a brankie wee worker, is Rabbie, and his lairdship will no be—”

  The old lady’s face froze in the midst of her animated conversation. I turned to look over my shoulder, and froze as well. Redcoats. Dragoons, six of them, on horseback, making their way carefully down the hill toward the millhouse.

  With admirable presence of mind, Mrs. MacNab stood up and sat down again on top of Jamie’s discarded clothes, her spreading skirts hiding everything.

  There was a splash and an explosive gasp from the millpond behind me as Jamie surfaced again. I was afraid to call out or move, for fear of attracting the dragoons’ attention to the pond, but the sudden dead silence behind me told me he had seen them. The silence was broken by a single word traveling across the water, softly spoken, but heartfelt in its sincerity.

  “Merde,” he said.

  The old lady and I sat unmoving, stone-faced, watching the soldiers come down the hill. At the last moment, as they made the final turn around the mill-house path, she turned swiftly to me and laid a stick-straight finger across her withered lips. I mustn’t speak and let them hear that I was English. I didn’t have time even to nod in acknowledgment before the mud-caked hooves came to a halt a few feet away.

  “Good morrow to you, ladies,” said the leader. He was a corporal, but not, I was pleased to see, Corporal Hawkins. A quick glance showed me that none of the men were among those I had seen at Fort William, and I relaxed my grip on the handle of my basket just a fraction.

  “We saw the mill from above,” the dragoon said, “and thought perhaps to purchase a sack of meal?” He divided a bow between us, not sure who to address.

  Mrs. MacNab was frosty, but polite.

  “Good morrow,” she said, inclining her head. “But if ye’ve come for meal, I fear me ye’ll be sair disappointit. The mill wheel’s nae workin’ just now. Perhaps next time ye come this way.”

  “Oh? What’s amiss, then?
The corporal, a short young man with a fresh complexion, seemed interested. He walked down to the edge of the pond to peer at the wheel. The miller, popping up in the mill to report the latest progress with the millstone, saw him and hastily popped back down out of sight.

  The corporal called to one of his men. Climbing up the slope, he gestured to the other soldier, who obligingly stooped to let the corporal climb on his back. Reaching up, he managed to catch the edge of the roof with both hands, and squirmed up onto the thatch. Standing, he could barely reach the edge of the great wheel. He reached out and rocked it with both hands. Bending down, he shouted through the window to the miller to try turning the millstone by hand.

  I willed myself to keep my eyes away from the bottom of the sluice. I wasn’t sufficiently familiar with the workings of waterwheels to know for sure, but I was afraid that if the wheel gave way suddenly, anything near the underwater works might be crushed. Apparently this was no idle fear, for Mrs. MacNab spoke sharply to one of the soldiers near us.

  “Ye should ca’ your master doon now, laddie. He’ll do no good tae the mill or himsel’. Ye shouldna meddle wi’ things as ye dinna understand.”

  “Oh, you’ve no cause for worry, missus,” said the soldier casually. “Corporal Silvers’s father has a wheat mill in Hampshire. What the Corporal doesn’t know about waterwheels would fit in me shoe.”

  Mrs. MacNab and I exchanged looks of alarm. The corporal, after a bit more clambering up and down and exploratory rockings and pokings, came down to where we sat. He was perspiring freely, and wiped his red face with a large, grubby handkerchief before addressing us.

  “I can’t move it from above, and that fool of a miller doesn’t seem to speak any English at all.” He glanced at Mrs. MacNab’s sturdy stick and gnarled limbs, then at me. “Perhaps the young lady could come and talk to him for me?”

  Mrs. MacNab stretched out a protective hand, gripping me by the sleeve.

  “Ye’ll hae to pardon my daughter-in-law, sorr. She’s gone sair saft in the heid, ever syne her last babe was stillborn. Hasna spoke a word in ower a year, puir lassie. And I canna leave her for a minute, for fear she’ll throw hersel’ intae the water in her grief.”

  I did my best to look soft-headed, no great effort in my present state of mind.

  The corporal looked disconcerted. “Oh,” he said. “Well…” He wandered down to the edge of the pond and stood frowning into the water. He looked just as Jamie had an hour before, and apparently for the same reason.

  “No help for it, Collins,” he said to the old trooper. “I’ll have to go under and see what’s holding it.” He took off his scarlet coat and began to unfasten the cuffs of his shirt. I exchanged looks of horror with Mrs. MacNab. While there might be sufficient air under the millhouse for survival, certainly there was not room to hide very effectively.

  I was considering, not very optimistically, the chances of throwing a convincing epileptic fit, when the great wheel suddenly creaked overhead. With a sound like a tree being murdered, the big arc made a swooping half-turn, stuck for a moment, then rolled into a steady revolution, scoops merrily pouring bright streamlets into the sluice.

  The corporal paused in his undressing, admiring the arc of the wheel.

  “Look at that, Collins! Wonder what was stuck in it?”

  As though in answer, something came into sight at the top of the wheel. It hung from one of the scoops, sodden red folds dripping. The scoop hit the stream now churning down the sluice, the object came loose, and Jamie’s father’s erstwhile drawers floated majestically out onto the waters of the millpond.

  The elderly trooper fished them out with a stick, presenting them gingerly to his commander, who plucked them off the stick like a man obliged to pick up a dead fish.

  “Hm,” he said, holding up the garment critically. “Wonder where on earth that came from? Must have been caught around the shaft. Curious that something like that could cause so much trouble, isn’t it, Collins?”

  “Yessir.” The trooper plainly did not consider the interior workings of a Scottish mill wheel to be of absorbing interest, but answered politely.

  After turning the cloth over a time or two, the corporal shrugged, and used it to wipe the dirt from his hands.

  “Decent bit of flannel,” he said, wringing out the sopping cloth. “It’ll do to polish tack, at least. Something of a souvenir, eh, Collins?” And with a polite bow to Mrs. MacNab and me, he turned to his horse.

  The dragoons had barely disappeared from sight over the brow of the hill when a splashing from the millpond heralded the rising from the depths of the resident water sprite.

  He was the bloodless white, blue-tinged, of Carrara marble, and his teeth chattered so hard that I could barely make out his first words, which were, in any case, in Gaelic.

  Mrs. MacNab had no trouble making them out, and her ancient jaw dropped. She snapped it shut, though, and made a low reverence toward the emergent laird. Seeing her, he stopped his progress toward the shore, the water still lapping modestly about his hips. He took a deep breath, clenching his teeth to stop the chattering, and plucked a streamer of duckweed off his shoulder.

  “Mrs. MacNab,” he said, bowing to his elderly tenant.

  “Sir,” she said, bowing back once again. “A fine day, is it no?”

  “A bit b-brisk,” he said, casting an eye at me. I shrugged helplessly.

  “We’re pleased to see ye back in yer home, sir, and it’s our hope, the lads and mysel’, as you’ll soon be back to stay.”

  “Mine too, Mrs. MacNab,” Jamie said courteously. He jerked his head at me, glaring. I smiled blandly.

  The old lady, ignoring this byplay, folded her gnarled hands in her lap and settled back with dignity.

  “I’ve a wee favor I was wishin’ to ask of your lairdship,” she began, “havin’ tae do wi’—”

  “Grannie MacNab,” Jamie interrupted, advancing a menacing half-step through the water, “whatever your wish is, I’ll do it. Provided only that ye’ll give me back my shirt before my parts fall off wi’ cold.”

  29

  MORE HONESTY

  In the evenings, when supper was cleared away, we generally sat in the drawing room with Jenny and Ian, talking companionably of this and that, or listening to Jenny’s stories.

  Tonight, though, it was my turn, and I held Jenny and Ian rapt as I told them about Mrs. MacNab and the Redcoats.

  “God kens well enough that boys need to be smacked, or he’d no fill them sae full o’ the de’il.” My imitation of Grannie MacNab brought down the house.

  Jenny wiped tears of laughter from her eyes.

  “Lord, it’s true enough. And she’d know it too. What has she got, Ian, eight boys?”

  Ian nodded. “Aye, at least. I canna even remember all their names; seemed like there was always a couple of MacNabs about to hunt or fish or swim with, when Jamie and I were younger.”

  “You grew up together?” I asked. Jamie and Ian exchanged wide, complicitous grins.

  “Oh, aye, we’re familiar,” Jamie said, laughing. “Ian’s father was the factor for Lallybroch, like Ian is now. On a number of occasions during my reckless youth, I’ve found myself standing elbow to elbow with Mr. Murray there, explaining to one or other of our respective fathers how appearances can be deceiving, or failing that, why circumstances alter cases.”

  “And failin’ that,” said Ian, “I’ve found myself on the same number of occasions, bent over a fence rail alongside Mr. Fraser there, listenin’ to him yell his heid off while waitin’ for my own turn.”

  “Never!” replied Jamie indignantly. “I never yelled.”

  “Ye call it what ye like, Jamie,” his friend answered, “but ye were awful loud.”

  “Ye could hear the both of ye for miles,” Jenny interjected. “And not only the yelling. Ye could hear Jamie arguing all the time, right up to the fence.”

  “Aye, ye should ha’ been a lawyer, Jamie. But I dinna ken why I always let you do the talking
,” said Ian, shaking his head. “You always got us in worse trouble than we started.”

  Jamie began to laugh again. “You mean the broch?”

  “I do.” Ian turned to me, motioning toward the west, where the ancient stone tower rose from the hill behind the house.

  “One of Jamie’s better arguments, that was,” he said, rolling his eyes upward. “He told Brian it was uncivilized to use physical force in order to make your point of view prevail. Corporal punishment was barbarous, he said, and old-fashioned, to boot. Thrashing someone just because they had committed an act with whose ram-ramifications, that was it—with whose ramifications ye didn’t agree was not at a’ a constructive form of punishment.…”

  All of us were laughing by this time.

  “Did Brian listen to all of this?” I asked.

  “Oh, aye.” Ian nodded. “I just stood there wi’ Jamie, nodding whenever he’d stop for breath. When Jamie finally ran out of words, his father sort of coughed a bit and said ‘I see.’ Then he turned and looked out of the window for a little, swinging the strap and nodding his head, as though he were thinking. We were standing there, elbow to elbow like Jamie said, sweating. At last Brian turned about and told us to follow him to the stables.”

  “He gave us each a broom, a brush, and a bucket, and pointed us in the direction of the broch,” said Jamie, taking up the story. “Said I’d convinced him of my point, so he’d decided on a more ‘constructive’ form of punishment.”

  Ian’s eyes rolled slowly up, as though following the rough stones of the broch upward.

  “That tower rises sixty feet from the ground,” he told me, “and it’s thirty feet in diameter, wi’ three floors.” He heaved a sigh. “We swept it from the top to the bottom,” he said, “and scrubbed it from the bottom to the top. It took five days, and I can taste rotted oat-straw when I cough, even now.”

  “And you tried to kill me on the third day,” said Jamie, “for getting us into that.” He touched his head gingerly. “I had a wicked gash over my ear, where ye hit me wi’ the broom.”

  “Oh, weel,” Ian said comfortably, “that was when ye broke my nose the second time, so we were even.”

  “Trust a Murray to keep score,” Jamie said, shaking his head.

  “Let’s see,” I said, counting on my fingers. “According to you, Frasers are stubborn, Campbells are sneaky, MacKenzies are charming but sly, and Grahams are stupid. What’s the Murrays’ distinguishing characteristic?”

  “Ye can count on them in a fight,” said Jamie and Ian together, then laughed.

  “Ye can too,” said Jamie, recovering. “You just hope they’re on your side.” And both men went off into fits again.

  Jenny shook her head disapprovingly at spouse and brother.

  “And we havena even had any wine yet,” she said. She put down her sewing and heaved herself to her feet. “Come wi’ me, Claire; we’ll see has Mrs. Crook made any biscuits to have wi’ the port.”

  * * *

  Coming back down the hall a quarter of an hour later with trays of refreshments, I heard Ian say, “You’ll not mind then, Jamie?”

  “Mind what?”

  “That we wed without your consent—me and Jenny, I mean.”

  Jenny, walking ahead of me, came to a sudden stop outside the drawing room door.

  There was a brief snort from the love seat where Jamie lay sprawled, feet propped on a hassock. “Since I didna tell ye where I was, and ye had no notion when—if ever—I’d come back, I can hardly blame ye for not waiting.”

  I could see Ian in profile, leaning over the log basket. His long, good-natured face wore a slight frown.

  “Weel, I didna think it right, especially wi’ me being crippled…”

  There was a louder snort.

  “Jenny couldna have a better husband, if you’d lost both legs and your arms as well,” Jamie said gruffly. Ian’s pale skin flushed slightly in embarrassment. Jamie coughed and swung his legs down from the hassock, leaning over to pick up a scrap of kindling that had fallen from the basket.

  “How did ye come to wed anyway, given your scruples?” he asked, one side of his mouth curling up.

  “Gracious, man,” Ian protested, “ye think I had any choice in the matter? Up against a Fraser?” He shook his head, grinning at his friend.

  “She came up to me out in the field one day, while I was tryin’ to mend a wagon that sprang its wheel. I crawled out, all covered wi’ muck, and found her standin’ there looking like a bush covered wi’ butterflies. She looks me up and down and she says—” He paused and scratched his head. “Weel, I don’t know exactly what she said, but it ended with her kissing me, muck notwithstanding, and saying, ‘Fine, then, we’ll be married on St. Martin’s Day.’ ” He spread his hands in comic resignation. “I was still explaining why we couldna do any such thing, when I found myself in front of a priest, saying, ‘I take thee, Janet’…and swearing to a lot of verra improbable statements.”

  Jamie rocked back in his seat, laughing.

  “Aye, I ken the feeling,” he said. “Makes ye feel a bit hollow, no?”

  Ian smiled, embarrassment forgotten. “It does and all. I still get that feeling, ye know, when I see Jenny sudden, standing against the sun on the hill, or holding wee Jamie, not lookin’ at me. I see her, and I think, ‘God, man, she
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