Mary could not imagine the terror and pain that Hugh’s mother and sister had suffered. Nor what he’d suffered in learning their fate, knowing he had not been there to shield and protect them.
Again a small piece of the puzzle that was Hugh MacPherson fell into its place, and she knew why he’d stepped in where others might not have, to safeguard the honor of one who had none to defend it, that night in the yard of the inn at Valence.
“He carried but two things away from his old home,” the earl said. “A piece of the wood, not yet burnt, from the loom of his father, and part of the blade of the sword that was left for his mother to use to defend herself if need be, that he found broken and left in the dirt. You’ll have seen both these things if you’ve spent any time with him.”
Mary knew where. He had fashioned them into the dagger—the dirk—that he wore at his belt. The wood-handled dirk that he used when he killed to protect those he guarded. The blade that he touched to his lips when he swore an unbreakable oath.
Mary nodded and looked away, seeing the golden light scattered like small shattered dreams on the river they strolled beside. She’d asked Hugh on del Rio’s ship how he had made the journey from a man who liked to fix things to a man who killed. And he had fallen silent and his mouth had twisted in the smile that was not like a smile, and he had told her: Step by step.
And walking now beside the Tiber while the earl continued telling her the story of that summer, Mary pictured in her mind the steady striding steps Hugh would have taken while he was half helping and half carrying the earl’s ill brother through the rugged Highlands, every one of those steps taking him a little farther from the man he might have been, and leading him along the path to what he would become.
He got the earl’s brother to safety and a ship across the Channel, and the three men meeting up in the Low Countries had then found their way again to Spain. For nearly nine years after that, Hugh guarded the earl’s brother through his various adventures in the Spanish service, into France and out of it, and all through the five-month-long siege of Gibraltar, until the earl’s brother, on finding that being a Protestant stood in his way of advancing his rank, finally went into Russia to join the service of the empress there.
“It is not an easy thing, gaining admittance to Russia,” the earl said. “The invitation sent to Jemmy was for him alone, and so MacPherson could not follow.”
Since then, these past few years, Hugh had been serving the Earl Marischal, loaned out upon occasion to his friend the Duke of Ormonde, who at length had heard from Paris that a trusted man was needed there to guard the warehouse keeper of the Charitable Corporation.
“And from there,” the earl said, “I believe your knowledge of MacPherson’s actions will be fuller than my own.”
They walked a little ways in silence. Then the earl remarked, in tones more casual, “He’d kill me if he knew that I had told you this.”
She glanced at him. “Why did you tell me?”
“I could say, because you asked me to,” he speculated. “Or because I thought that you should know what manner of a man had brought you here from Paris, though I rather think you know already, do you not?”
She told him, simply, “Yes.”
“Then I could say I told you of MacPherson’s life because he would not tell you it himself. He did not tell me most of it, I learned it secondhand and sometimes even that was difficult. He is a very pri—”
“Private man,” she finished for him. “Yes, I know.”
She felt his gaze upon her face but kept her own steadfastly on the river and the dancing play of light.
“Then let us say,” the earl said finally, “that I told you what I did because he would not kill a sparrow.”
Mary did not know if the Earl Marischal had heard tell of her story of the huntsman, or if he had somehow guessed at her connection to Hugh’s unexpected show of mercy, and the earl did not choose to enlighten her on that count for already he had moved on to a newer subject.
“But I’m meant to be showing you some of the sights of Rome,” he reminded her.
They had by this time come round a long bend of the river and were now approaching a small island set in the Tiber, attached by an ancient arched bridge to the shore.
“There’s a bridge on the far side to match it,” the earl said. “The island itself was shaped into the form of a ship, with this end of it here as the stern, and the bridges at each side are set as its oars, which itself is a pretty arrangement.”
There were several buildings clustered on the island—a church, he pointed out to her, and a hospital, warm plastered walls and uneven tiled roofs in a picturesque huddle, but Mary admired the bridge most of all. It was not very wide, and curved up and across in a gentle arc. Built in the time of the Caesars, its softly red bricks showed the signs of their age, but the parapet where she was leaning felt very strong. Doing his part as her guide, the earl showed her the twin pillars set on the parapets, one very near to the place where she leaned—a squared stump of pale marble with faces set round it, their features now worn by the years and the weather.
“These were not set here when the bridge was first built, but some few hundred years ago. I have been told they are meant to show Janus.”
The god of the Romans who stood at the gates with one face always turned to the future, and one to the past.
“’Tis an emblem well fitted for Rome,” said the earl, “for although it is beautiful here, it seems always some part of this city must stand as a monument to what has already passed.” The earl moved to lean on the parapet next to her, looking as Mary did down at the river that flowed swiftly under the arches beneath them and folded itself on the rocks into two white-laced currents that sent up a sound like the roar of the sea.