MacPherson, not breaking stride, half turned his head to glance back at her and looked away in one movement, but Mary thought she glimpsed the faintest twisting of his mouth in what, incredibly, appeared to be a smile. Even more incredibly, when Effie spoke up from behind her and said something briefly in their Highland language, MacPherson replied with a short sound that came close to being a laugh.
But he said nothing more until late afternoon, when they came to a river and found it had risen with yesterday’s rain, and the ford where they clearly were meant to cross now lay submerged by a shallow but swift-moving current.
The river was broad, but the bank on the far side was level with a clearing edged by trees. MacPherson, handing Frisque to Mary, had a brief exchange of words with Effie before he told Thomson, “Turn your back,” and did the same himself.
Effie bent and stepped out of her shoes and stripped her stockings off, and rolling them together took the little dog from Mary’s arms. “Ye do the same,” she said. “I’ll help ye cross.”
The men respectfully stayed standing with their backs turned while the women hitched their skirts up past their knees and stepped into the rushing water. It was freezing cold, and Mary could not help but give a little shriek, and then a laugh. Her bare feet slipped a little on the wet stones but Effie, having gathered both her skirts and Frisque into one arm, now linked her other arm with Mary’s and helped her to balance as they crossed together.
“There,” the older woman said, and set the squirming dog down as they reached the other bank, “go have a run, if ye’ve a mind to.” And he did just that, in circles, snuffling happily at all the new discoveries he was making in the clearing. Mary dried her legs and rolled her stockings on, her fingers feeling numb upon the buckles of her shoes. When she was done and Effie had called over to the men to tell them it was safe for them to turn around, she turned herself and saw that Frisque had ventured near the trees. She called him back.
But he had found something. His hair was raised, his ears were back, and even while she thought she’d never seen him look like that, he started barking, and it was a fierce and frenzied sound she’d never heard him make.
She clambered to her feet and looked to where the dog was looking.
Something colder than the water of the river touched her then.
She’d never seen a living wolf. She’d seen their pelts, and even once the lifeless corpse of one that had been killed by hunters, but she’d never seen one standing like a predatory shadow with its rough brown coat concealing it amid the trees, its eyes locked with a fixed and hungry purpose on its prey.
She did not scream. She yelled, and ran for Frisque with all the speed she had, and as the wolf broke from the tree line Mary reached the little dog and snatched him up and wheeled about and went on running, with her lungs on fire.
MacPherson, from the river, yelled as well, “Get down!”
She did not understand. Her gaze in panic fell upon him, standing in the water to his knees, the long gun leveled to his shoulder as he sighted down its barrel.
“Mary!” he called out more strongly. “Down!”
She did as ordered, dropping with her body curled round Frisque, the wolf so close behind she heard it panting.
And MacPherson fired.
Send thou the night away in song; and give the joy of grief.
—Macpherson, “Fingal,” Book One
March 4, 1732
Thomson was still speaking of it come the morning. “Flung me,” he repeated, as he told the tale again to the three older children of the family where they had been taken in the night before. “Did not ‘let me go,’ he flung me on my ar—well, on my backside in the middle of the river.”
“Did you drown?” The littlest boy had asked this question twice already, but appeared distrustful of the answers he’d received before. He was perhaps five years of age, with wide brown eyes. There were two children in the family younger still than him—one barely walking, and an infant in its cradle, but they were not at the table.
Thomson, having twice denied it, told him now, “I did. I drowned. But as you see, I have recovered.”
He’d recovered his good humor, Mary noticed, thanks in large part to the generous share of wine their hosts had given him, together with a good hot meal of fish and bread, and a good long sleep that, while it had been on a pallet made for him beside the stove, had nonetheless been in the house and nowhere near a barn or hayloft, so had left him most contented.
He was speaking French, as they had done since they’d first chanced upon this house a quarter of a league beyond the river, since with Mary all disheveled and a little bruised and leaning hard on Effie it had proved to be much easier to make their explanations all in French, though they had kept to their identities, their English names, asserting they had lived in Paris some years and so learned the language.
Seeming satisfied at last by Thomson’s answer, the small boy sat back and said, “It was not nice of him to let you drown.”
“No,” Thomson told him in agreement, “and I thought so at the time. As I was sinking underneath the water, I thought, ‘This is not so very nice of him,’ but—”
“But,” said Mary, smoothly picking up the story, “Mr. Jarvis needed both his hands to hold his gun, so he could shoot the wolf.”
The children all looked curiously at the Scotsman sitting in his chair. He took no notice. He’d said nothing yet this morning and indeed had spoken little since the incident itself.