For Cookie !
Hold no hot
Teacups in your Hands !
I apologize in advance,
Diana Gabaldon, for this
A NEW BEGINNING
It wasn’t a very likely place for disappearances, at least at first glance. Mrs. Baird’s was like a thousand other Highland bed-and-breakfast establishments in 1945; clean and quiet, with fading floral wallpaper, gleaming floors, and a coin-operated hot-water geyser in the lavatory. Mrs. Baird herself was squat and easygoing, and made no objection to Frank lining her tiny rose-sprigged parlor with the dozens of books and papers with which he always traveled.
I met Mrs. Baird in the front hall on my way out. She stopped me with a pudgy hand on my arm and patted at my hair.
“Dear me, Mrs. Randall, ye canna go out like that! Here, just let me tuck that bit in for ye. There! That’s better. Ye know, my cousin was tellin’ me about a new perm she tried, comes out beautiful and holds like a dream; perhaps ye should try that kind next time.”
I hadn’t the heart to tell her that the waywardness of my light brown curls was strictly the fault of nature, and not due to any dereliction on the part of the permanent-wave manufacturers. Her own tightly marceled waves suffered from no such perversity.“Yes, I’ll do that, Mrs. Baird,” I lied. “I’m just going down to the village to meet Frank. We’ll be back for tea.” I ducked out the door and down the path before she could detect any further defects in my undisciplined appearance. After four years as a Royal Army nurse, I was enjoying the escape from uniforms and rationing by indulging in brightly printed light cotton dresses, totally unsuited for rough walking through the heather.
Not that I had originally planned to do a lot of that; my thoughts ran more on the lines of sleeping late in the mornings, and long, lazy afternoons in bed with Frank, not sleeping. However, it was difficult to maintain the proper mood of languorous romance with Mrs. Baird industriously Hoovering away outside our door.
“That must be the dirtiest bit of carpet in the entire Scottish Highlands,” Frank had observed that morning as we lay in bed listening to the ferocious roar of the vacuum in the hallway.
“Nearly as dirty as our landlady’s mind,” I agreed. “Perhaps we should have gone to Brighton after all.” We had chosen the Highlands as a place to holiday before Frank took up his appointment as a history professor at Oxford, on the grounds that Scotland had been somewhat less touched by the physical horrors of war than the rest of Britain, and was less susceptible to the frenetic postwar gaiety that infected more popular vacation spots.
And without discussing it, I think we both felt that it was a symbolic place to reestablish our marriage; we had been married and spent a two-day honeymoon in the Highlands, shortly before the outbreak of war seven years before. A peaceful refuge in which to rediscover each other, we thought, not realizing that, while golf and fishing are Scotland’s most popular outdoor sports, gossip is the most popular indoor sport. And when it rains as much as it does in Scotland, people spend a lot of time indoors.
“Where are you going?” I asked, as Frank swung his feet out of bed.
“I’d hate the dear old thing to be disappointed in us,” he answered. Sitting up on the side of the ancient bed, he bouncedgently up and down, creating a piercing rhythmic squeak. The Hoovering in the hall stopped abruptly. After a minute or two of bouncing, he gave a loud, theatrical groan and collapsed backward with a twang of protesting springs. I giggled helplessly into a pillow, so as not to disturb the breathless silence outside.
Frank waggled his eyebrows at me. “You’re supposed to moan ecstatically, not giggle,” he admonished in a whisper. “She’ll think I’m not a good lover.”
“You’ll have to keep it up for longer than that, if you expect ecstatic moans,” I answered. “Two minutes doesn’t deserve any more than a giggle.”
“Inconsiderate little wench. I came here for a rest, remember?”
“Lazybones. You’ll never manage the next branch on your family tree unless you show a bit more industry than that.”
Frank’s passion for genealogy was yet another reason for choosing the Highlands. According to one of the filthy scraps of paper he lugged to and fro, some tiresome ancestor of his had had something to do with something or other in this region back in the middle of the eighteenth — or was it seventeenth? — century.
“If I end as a childless stub on my family tree, it will undoubtedly be the fault of our untiring hostess out there. After all, we’ve been married almost eight years. Little Frank Jr. will be quite legitimate without being conceived in the presence of a witness.”
“If he’s conceived at all,” I said pessimistically. We had been disappointed yet again the week before leaving for our Highland retreat.
“With all this bracing fresh air and healthy diet? How could we help but manage here?” Dinner the night before had been herring, fried. Lunch had been herring, pickled. And the pungent scent now wafting up the stairwell strongly intimated that breakfast was to be herring, kippered.
“Unless you’re contemplating an encore performance for the edification of Mrs. Baird,” I suggested, “you’d better get dressed. Aren’t you meeting that parson at ten?” The Rev. Dr. Reginald Wakefield, vicar of the local parish, was to provide some rivetingly fascinating baptismal registers for Frank’s inspection, not to mention the glittering prospect that he might have unearthed some moldering army despatches or somesuch that mentioned the notorious ancestor.
“What’s the name of that great-great-great-great-grandfather of yours again?” I asked. “The one that mucked about here during one of the Risings? I can’t remember if it was Willy or Walter.”
“Actually, it was Jonathan.” Frank took my complete disinterest in family history placidly, but remained always on guard, ready to seize the slightest expression of inquisitiveness as an excuse for telling me all facts known to date about the early Randalls and their connections. His eyes assumed the fervid gleam of the fanatic lecturer as he buttoned his shirt.
“Jonathan Wolverton Randall — Wolverton for his mother’s uncle, a minor knight from Sussex. He was, however, known by the rather dashing nickname of ‘Black Jack,’ something he acquired in the army, probably during the time he was stationed here.” I flopped facedown on the bed and affected to snore. Ignoring me, Frank went on with his scholarly exegesis.
“He bought his commission in the mid-thirties — 1730s, that is — and served as a captain of dragoons. According to those old letters Cousin May sent me, he did quite well in the army. Good choice for a second son, you know; his younger brother followed tradition as well by becoming a curate, but I haven’t found out much about him yet. Anyway, Jack Randall was highly commended by the Duke of Sandringham for his activities before and during the ’45 — the second — Jacobite Rising, you know,” he amplified for the benefit of the ignorant amongst his audience, namely me. “You know, Bonnie Prince Charlie and that lot?”“I’m not entirely sure the Scots realize they lost that one,” I interrupted, sitting up and trying to subdue my hair. “I distinctly heard the barman at that pub last night refer to us as Sassenachs.”
“Well, why not?” said Frank equably. “It only means ‘Englishman,’ after all, or at worst, ‘outlander,’ and we’re all of that.”
“I know what it means. It was the tone I objected to.”
Frank searched through the bureau drawer for a belt. “He was just annoyed because I told him the ale was weak. I told him the true Highland brew requires an old boot to be added to the vat, and the final product to be strained through a well-worn undergarment.”