| The Destiny |
By Kathleen Givens
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December, 1691. Warwickshire, England
Is he dead? They were just wee lads, the two who spoke over him, their voices hushed and excited as they discussed whether he was still alive.
Neil MacCurrie wasnt sure himself. He should open his eyes, should say something to the lads, get them to tell him on whose lands this small stone cottage in which hed slept was. And in a moment, when he was sure his body still worked, he would.
Hed not frozen last night, which for a while had been a distinct possibility; nor had he been set upon on his way north from London, another good thing. But overall the trip had been a disaster from the moment his cousin Duncan had rowed him ashore on the coast of France.
It was supposed to have been a simpleand shorttrip. Hed visit James Stuart, find out what, if anything, the deposed king planned, and head home. But nothing had gone as hed hoped. Instead of staying for days, hed been in France for weeks, waiting with myriad others for a five- minute conversation with the king. When at last it came, the conversation was as illuminating as it was cheerless. But it helped him decide what he would do next.
The first thing was to get home, a task that proved as elusive as securing the royal interview. The delays at court meant he missed the ship that he planned to take on his return, and instead had to take one heading for London, which meant he had to make his way overland, through an England that would not welcome him.
And now this, getting lost in a snowstorm. He should have stayed in Warwick yesterday when the storm hit, but hed been watched too closely at the inn and thought it wise to head north. It seemed that no matter what he did, something unexpected changed his course, as though he were struggling against a force that was playing with him, challenging him to find a way out of the latest maze. It was not a feeling he enjoyed.
I think hes dead, one of the boys whispered. Touch him. No! You touch him!
Neil opened his eyes. The boys scurried across the room and watched him with terrified expressions. Speak French, he reminded himself. The disguise was tedious, but necessary.
Bonjour, he said. The boys exchanged a look.
Hello, he tried, careful of his accent. He was rewarded with a tempering of their fear. One of the boys swallowed, then echoed his greeting. Neil waved his hand to indicate the filthy cottage they were in. Where. . . ? Ronley Hall, sir, the boy said.
Neil smiled. Hed found it, despite the deep snows and the wild winds that had driven him to find shelter where he could. In good weather he would have reached Ronley Hall in two hours, but the blizzard had almost stopped his progress, leaving him facing a night outside. He had breathed a prayer of thanks when the cottage appeared through the waves of ice that pummeled him, then stumbled into the empty house and ate a hasty meal before rolling himself in his topcoat and letting sleep find him. He began to relax. Hed been told in London that this house, between Warwick and Coventry, was safe, that Sir Adam Ronley welcomed those who shared his politics. His luck, it seemed, was turning at last.
The boys shared another look, then gestured for him to follow. They led him outside into the daylight, where he paused, taking a moment to look around. Hed spent the night in an old gatekeepers cottage, at the edge of the manor houses property, only a few minutes from the main house. In the snowstorm he had not seen the new cottage built nearby, nor the small cluster of outbuildings, nor the long sweeping drive to the elegant country home. Sir Adam, it seemed, was a wealthy man.
The boys left him in the yard, where footmen greeted him with curious questions, but no hostility. Neil spoke French to them, or very broken English with a heavy accent, asking how far it was to Coventry. They didnt understand him, nor know what to do with him, that much was obvious. They watched with wide eyes and told each other that someone should fetch Milford, then led him into the hall, where he was shown a seat by the fire.
Milford would be here soon, said the girl who brought him a plate of steaming food. When he smiled at her, she darted away like a mouse. He ate the meal without haste, ignoring the curious glances thrown him by the bustling servants. Most likely this Milford was the factor or steward here, who would be sent to inspect the new arrival, then report to his overlord. Neil would be polite, but would speak to Sir Adam himself.
The wait was long, but he was content to stand before the huge fireplace in the comfortable hall, well furnished with the long table at which hed eaten his meal, chairs before the fire and couches set below the glazed windows. There were pictures on the wall, a Chinese vase on a table. Adam had done well for himself.
Neil tossed his topcoat onto a nearby bench and opened his coat, thinking as he did that no matter how long he wore these French clothes, they still did not feel like his own. It wouldnt be much longer. For now, he was full, he was warm, and soon hed be able to speak English again. His ruse had been successful thus far, and would be needed to get him home, but he was weary of it.
The man who joined him after more than an hours wait was tall and fleshy, but fit, several years older than Neil, with dark hair still wet with snow. And a guarded expression. He stood in the doorway for a moment, then came into the hall followed by several armed men, who filed into a line along the wall. He stopped before Neil, looking into his eyes.
Neil nodded. Monsieur. Eileen Ronley looked up from her embroidery as Sim burst into the room, skidding to a stop in front of her. The scrawny boy was breathless, his face scrunched with worry, but since Sim had spent most of his ten years in that condition, she was not particularly alarmed. Still, his agitation was contagious and she gave him all her attention.
Youre wanted in the hall, miss, Sim gasped. Milford said to tell you to hurry, he needs you at once. Eileen sighed and looked over the boys head. Milford always said to tell her to hurry. He thought of no ones needs but his own; everything must be done on his schedule. She knew what he wantedshed hurry to the hall, smile and sit while the latest of Milfords marriage prospects assessed her.
What would he see? A woman with thick blond hair that defied the pins she kept in it, whose freckles showed no matter how much she stayed out of the sun. This one wouldnt want her either, but at least she had the comfort of knowing it was not just her person that he would reject. A woman without connections or dowry was not welcome in the marriage market, especially one whose family had chosen the wrong side to back in the war between King James and King William.
As usual, Milford had not warned her, would not want her to take time to change her clothes or comb her hair. She sighed again, looking down at the gown she wore, one of her oldest. Black, despite the fact that she was now out of mourning. It had been two yearstwo long yearssince her parents deaths, but there had been no money for new clothes and shed not had the luxury of putting it aside. It would have to do yet again.
Hurry, miss, please. Sim shifted his weight, his brows furrowed.
She smiled to calm him. Dont worry, Sim. Tell Milford Ill be there shortly. The boy started away, but she called him back. What does this one look like? she asked. Sims expression shifted from worry to confusion. Is there a man Milford wants me to meet? The boy nodded.
Who is he? Ive never seen him before, miss. What does he look like? Sim shrugged. Big. Fearsome, miss. Looks through you. Milford brought his guards with him. Splendid, she murmured. This, then, would be the one man with standards so low that he would agree to marry her.
When she entered the hall, Milford was sitting at the end of the long table, the stranger facing him with his back to her. Sim was right; the visitor was big. And heavily armed. A sword hung from his hip, a long dagger from his waist, two pistols were tucked into the sides of his belt.
In the past, when Milford was introducing her to a possible husband, hed been falsely jovial, loudly welcoming, treating her as though she were a treasured relative that he would hate to lose. Now he gave her only the briefest of glances and grunted for her to join them. Milfords guards, standing behind him and near the fireplace, looked relieved to see her.
Eileen walked toward them and stood next to the stranger, but did not look at his face. What little shed seen on her approach had been daunting. He wore no wig, his dark hair instead drawn back neatly and tied behind his neck. His clothes were fashionably cut. He wore a black fitted brocade coat that stretched across his wide shoulders and hugged a lean torso; a topcoat of fine black wool trimmed with braid lay on the bench next to him. His linen shirt was white, his gathered breeches buff, his neck cloth silk. Simple black leather gloves rested in his long fingers. A man of obvious means.
She looked down at her clothes, seeing the many places shed mended the muslin, the tear in her hem. He would think her a pauper.
Hes French, Milford said. Or at least thats what he speaks.
The stranger rose to his feet and faced her. He was very tall; she stepped back as he bowed to her, then straightened to meet her gaze. He was extraordinarily handsome and somehow she knew he knew that. His eyes were deep blue, framed by dark lashes and straight brows, his cheeks dark with several days growth of beard, his nose straight, his mouth wide. It was difficult to judge his age with that beard; he was perhaps in his thirties, but he might have been younger. He watched her study him, his eyes amused now.
Mademoiselle, he said in French. I hope I meet with your approval.
She felt her cheeks go scarlet. None of the men Milford had brought here had looked like this.
You speak French, right? Milford asked her. Yes, she said.
Talk to him, Milford said. Find out his name, where hes from.
She raised her eyebrows. You dont know who he is? Two boys found him asleep in the old cottage. How would I know who he is? Milford frowned at her, then gave a low grunt. I didnt bring him here to see if hed marry you, Eileen, if thats what you thought. And tell him to sit down.
Eileen nodded and sat on the bench next to the stranger, smoothing her skirts, trying to think of French verbs and not the man before her.
Talk to him, Milford said, crossing his arms over his chest.
She did, haltingly at first, pausing because the stranger watched her with an intensity that was difficult to ignore. She found the situation unnerving.
Welcome to Ronley Hall, sir, she said. You obviously speak French.
Oui, mademoiselle. And some English? Un petit peu. What is he saying? Milford demanded. I welcomed him. He says he speaks French and a little English. We knew that! Ask who he is. Your name, sir? she asked the stranger in French. Belmond, mademoiselle. Is that his name? Belmond? Milford asked. Whats the rest of it? Wheres he from? She asked Belmond.
Jean-Paul, miss. Jean-Paul Belmond. You are French, sir? Oui. From?
Belmond smiled slowly, showing a dimple in his left cheek. She caught her breath, saw him note that, and felt a wave of annoyance. This man was very assured of himself. London, mademoiselle.
Milford moved impatiently. London! Hes from London? What is he, one of those Huguenots?
Oui, monsieur, Belmond said to Milford. Huguenot. From London. Where in London? Spitalfields, Belmond answered, then glanced at Eileen. I do speak some English, mademoiselle.
She nodded. Spitalfields was full of Huguenots, religious refugees who had fled Louis XIVs France after hed revoked the Edict of Nantes and removed their freedom of worship. Theyd been welcomed as fellow Protestants, as supporters of King William.
You dont look like a weaver, Milford said, then turned to Eileen. Tell him.
Belmond smiled again when she translated. Not all Huguenots are weavers, nor tailors, nor clockmakers, made- moiselle. I am a soldier.
A soldier, Milford said when she told him. Where is he going to be a soldier? Scotland. To offer my services to King Williams army. What did he say about King William? Milford asked. Tell him I fought with William at Maastricht, that I stayed with him all the way through the Battle of the Boyne.
Eileen didnt need to tell him. Something, quickly suppressed, flashed in Belmonds eyes before she had said the words in French. Anger? Why would Milfords words make a Huguenot angry?
A fellow soldier, Belmond said to Milford in heavily accented English.
Milford nodded with a smile. Youll find that William is a fair commander. Where will you join his army? Wherever I can find it, Belmond answered through Eileen.
Youll be there a good long while. Those damned Scots wont accept that theyve lost the throne for good. I suspect that while James Stuart lives, the fear that hell try again to regain his crown will live as well.
Eileen translated, then watched the two men look at each other with approval. Two mercenaries, she said with distaste. You sell your ability to kill.
Belmond shrugged. A man must eat. You do not look like a man without resources. I am a younger son, mademoiselle, so I became a soldier. A younger son of a nobleman? Of a merchant. A merchant. From Brittany.
Belmond nodded. Milford leaned forward. Wheres he from in Brittany? A small town that no one would know, Belmond said. What is the name of the town, sir? Eileen asked. St.-Sebastian. Where is it?
West of St.-Malo, which probably means nothing to you, mademoiselle. On the contrary, sir, it means a great deal. Is your home between Dinard and St.-Malo or between Dinard and St.- Brieuc?
His surprise was quickly hidden. West of Dinard, he said cautiously.
Milfords tone was annoyed. What did he say? When she told him, he grunted. West of Dinard, east of Dinard, who cares? Its still France. She smiled tentatively at the Frenchman and was rewarded with a flash of a smile in return.
Milford growled. Dont make friends with him, girl, just ask him questions. If you want him when were finished with him, you can have him. Or he you, I should say.
Maybe hell even marry you. He smirked and glanced at his men.
Eileen took a deep breath, reminding herself that it would do her no good to speak sharply to the man who let her keep a roof over her head. You will keep a civil tongue, Milford, or I will not do this for you, she said as mildly as she could. Milford laughed, but his men exchanged glances and looked uncomfortable. She looked into Belmonds eyes again. And realized, with a shock, that he had understood everything theyd said.
He treats you with little courtesy, Belmond said in French. One should not talk to a serving girl like that, miss, and I suspect you are not a serving girl. None of them speak French? Eileen shook her head.
How is it you do? I was well educated. Do you have French blood as well? She smiled, thinking of her lineage. A long way back. You understand quite a lot of English, sir. One cannot help but pick up some of the language when one lives here.
Then why do you not speak to them? I tried. They did not understand me. I do not have all the words I need. How long have you been in England? Almost a year.
In London? For the most part. Do you miss your home? For the briefest of moments, he had a wistful expression. Very much. Where is home, sir? His expression was guarded again. London now. Originally Brittany. She shook her head. You are not from Brittany, Monsieur Belmond. You might not even be French, although your French is excellent. And I suspect you are not a merchants son.
You doubt me, mademoiselle? Yes. I have told you the truth. I would wager that you have not. Would you? He watched her for a moment. Is Milford Sir Adams son? No. Milford bought the property after Sir Adams death. Milford sat up straight. Sir Adam? Did he ask about Sir Adam?
Eileen nodded. Ask him why. Belmond answered her translation in French. I was told that Sir Adam owned Ronley Hall. Ask him who told him that, to ask for Sir Adam? Belmond repeated his answer. Eileen told Milford, then bit her lip. Why is it wrong to ask about Sir Adam? Belmond asked her.
The last man to ask for him by name was a follower of Williams enemy. You cannot even say his name? The deposed king? Its not wise. I dont understand. It was a simple question, with no special significance.
The former owner of this property drowned in the Thames the day after he denounced King William. That was two years ago. Since his death the only travelers who have asked for him have been sympathizers of the deposed king. What are you saying? Milford asked.
Belmond put both hands on the table and leaned forward to Milford. I go to King Williams army, he said in English.
Milford nodded, but his expression was skeptical. Who are you, miss? Belmond asked her. Are you his kin?
No. Are you his. . . ? He let his words fade, but she understood his meaning.
I am nothing to him. He was generous enough not to turn me out when he easily could have. I do small things, nothing of any worth. I am simply one more burden. He is trying to find someone to marry me, but it is unlikely; I have no dowry and no one wants a penniless wife. He smiled again. I should think many men would want to marry you, mademoiselle. Your lack of dowry is not the impediment you think it.
It is when your father denounced the king and then was murdered for his rashness. Sir Adam was your father? Yes.
And your mother? Is she here with you? She died with him. She was from the country to the north, sir, not a healthy thing to be in England in these times.
Your mother was from Scotland? Yes. From the Highlands. A MacKenzie. MacKenzie. Your mother was a MacKenzie. What was her name?
Catriona MacKenzie. Belmond stared at her. And she knew. Milford rose to his feet. I dont like this. What are you talking about?
What hell find in Scotland, Eileen said, trying to sound calm.
Savages is what hell find. What else are you talking about?
I told him my mother was Scottish. At least your mother was wise enough to leave Scotland and spend her life here, Milford said. Too bad she wasnt wise enough to marry someone other than a mouthy bastard.
Eileen closed her eyes for a moment, fighting her anger. She had no retort. Milford was right; her father had been a bastard, born on the wrong side of the blanket. And his unguarded words had killed him, killed them both.
Belmond looked down at his gloves and then back at her as he stood. Please tell Milford that I am grateful for the meal, and for the few hours of sleep I had in the cottage, but that I will now be going while its daylight. Please tell him, mademoiselle. And thank you for your assistance. When shed translated, Milford shook his head. No, he wont be leaving. I know you think Im stupid, Eileen, but Im not. He turned to his men. Take him to the cellars. Search him.
Belmond took a step away from the table, drawing his sword. Monsieur, he said to Milford in English. I go to King Williams army.
Not yet you dont. Milford gestured to his men. Belmond took a step backward. Eileen moved to her right, thinking to get out of his way. He moved in the same direction and smashed into her, catching her before she could fall. That simple gesture, of his hand on her arm, gave Milfords men the opening they needed. Eileen watched in horror as they fell upon him.
It was over very quickly. He fought well, defending himself rather than assaulting, backing several of them against the wall. But there were ten of them and they attacked him from all sides. When one knocked him to the floor, the rest swarmed over him, beating him until he no longer moved. And then they dragged him across the floor to the cellar stairs.
Excerpted from The Destiny , by Kathleen Givens . Copyright (c) 2003 by Kathleen Givens. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.Back to top