"You can place your trust in me, hen." Magda felt his h and warm on her wind-whipped shoulder. "You truly don't know this place? Don't know where you are?"
Magda merely sat in silence, willing her situation back to normal. It's time. Wake up.
Speaking over the rattle and creak of the carriage, James graciously changed the subject, pointing out the town of
Montrose growing visible in the far distance.
"Well, then, I shall tell you of it. You have before you my favorite burgh in all Scotland. And a fortuitous thing too." James edged close to the window and scanned the horizon. A thick cloud of geese swept across the sky, while a lone carrion crow hopped and jerked its head, pecking for mussels hidden in the rocks along the shore. "For I am its marquis."
Magda squinted beyond the stark panorama of brown and gray and into the distance. As the vista gradually resolved more clearly into Montrose town, her nerves nagged at her with greater intensity. I couldn't really have gone back in time, could I? Panic barreled back to the surface, blotting out the tired desolation that had suffused her just a moment ago.
Of course not. Wake up now.
She could just make out the rangy line of mismatched buildings that sprang up between the bleak marsh on one side and the frigid water of the North Sea on the other. A seascape was in the realm of the familiar, but these scant buildings were not.
The past? Alarm hummed along her body like a plucked violin string, dizzying her.
She heard James continue, unaware of her swelling hysteria, "Montrose offers an abundance of gentlemen's pursuits. Golf, fishing…" He looked at Magda and tucked an errant strand of hair behind her ear. his touch jarring her already piqued senses. "Aye, gentlemen's pursuits abound," he sighed, "yet mostly what I do is return the Lowland cattle our mischievous Highlanders insist on reiving."
He mistook the bewilderment in her eyes for a question, and added, "You see, Graham family lands form a bit of a wedge between the Highlands and the Low. Highlanders yearn to put themselves in harm's way, and when skirmishes are scarce, such thieving in the night is a bit of a sport for them. And can be a rite of passage, for the younger lads. Though I'd wager they prefer claymores to cattle, generally speaking."
Dozens of cottages slowly came into view, low-slung and hugging the shore as if bracing against the wind off the sea. The number and variety of boats bobbing idly near the gray stone pier proclaimed Montrose a vibrant fishing community. Several roads spoked out from the harbor and connected further up in a winding, haphazard maze.
Just a very old town.
Two - and three-story buildings huddled over thoroughfares so thin they seemed perpetually cast in shadow, and yet Montrose didn't appear forbidding. Rather, the preponderance of red tiled roofs and buildings painted the color of yellowed linen made for a cheery backdrop, despite the close quarters.
Not the past. Just a dream. A vivid dream.
James had said his physician was off of High Street. As they traveled there, ambling down a path that grew more claustrophobic with every turn, Magda fought the sensation that, like Alice, she'd fallen down her own rabbit hole.
"Pray, what is this material?" James asked, leaning toward her intently. The warmth of his leg along hers jolted her attention to him like an electric shock.
When she'd been alone in his room, Magda had been able to deny what was happening to her. The simple luxuries of his home were recognizable enough, and what had transpired was so surreal, it had been easiest to let the experience happen to her, to watch from outside he rself, all the while waiting patiently to awaken from her dream.
But now that they'd left his home's luxurious confines and traveled beyond the serene landscape, nuances plucked from a history book overwhelmed her. Horse -drawn carts clattering along side streets; the thick brogue chants of fishwives hawking their glassy-eyed wares from mucky street corners; and the occasional person leaning out a window for a shout and a quick smile, showcasing vaguely soiled clothing and a number of brown jagged teeth.
Like a seventeenth-century town.
She craned her neck out the window, ignoring the frank stares she'd provoked. No cars. No cell phones. Not even a damned bicycle. Instead, Magda was assailed by foreign images, sounds, and such a stink. The astringent reek of old fish mingled with the sweet smell of refuse, turning her stomach.
"This red material, hen?" James prompted her, gently drawing her back in. He held the lighter in his palm. "What?" She took it from him. Her growing panic made Magda impatient, and without thinking, she flicked the wheel. "Plastic," she told him testily.
How could he not know that? If I dreamt him up, wouldn't he somehow know that?
James gasped at the tiny blue and yellow flame. "What magic is this?" he whispered.
He wouldn't know that if he were from the past, a small voice nagged.
"And this item," he asked quietly, pulling back the cuff of his glove to reveal her digital watch, "from your wrist?"
"My watch," she replied, more haltingly now, taken aback by his reaction, and growing more distraught by the minute.
He stared blankly. In lieu of an explanation, Magda took his arm and tried to reset the buttons, but the watch merely continued to blink 12:00. "The time, it tells the time," she added, her voice growing manic.
"A miniature clock, is it?"
She nodded frantically, and his normally cavalier manner suddenly stilled. "Where is it you're from?" he asked. "Who are you to have such precious objects?"
Suddenly it became very important to Magda that she be able to set the time. She was done with this… this experience. She needed to be home, needed everything back to normal, needed to be away from this unsettling man who was the focal point. If she could just get this one thing to work normally, she thought, then everything else might jar back into place.
Frantic now, Magda dug her nails over and over into the watch's tiny black buttons. "I… I can't seem to reset it."
A relentless beeping shocked the carriage, its modern screech shrill in contrast. The numbers still flashed midnight. Magda's throat ached with the unshed tears she realized she'd been convulsively choking back.
"I don't know what happened. I was cleaning a portrait, your portrait, and suddenly I'm…" A sob escaped her, and with a deep shuddering breath. Magda's tears finally came in a rush. Hysterical now, she rapidly glanced from James to the carriage interior and back again, as if there might be some way to wrap her head around the situation if only she'd find it. "I dreamed myself back in time, but I can't seem to wake up."
"In time?" James grasped her hand hard, quieting her fingers that still fumbled wildly with the watch. "When is it you think you're from?" His voice was tender, and the cavalier good humor that ever animated his features flickered out, replaced by genuine concern.
Magda looked at James as if finally focusing on him. She said in a quiet but steady voice, "I live in New York City. In twenty-first-century America."
The carriage came to an abrupt stop, and James caught her easily before she knocked her head against the wall of the coach.
The need to flee consumed her. Rational thought was pushed out of her mind, and all Magda could think was that she needed to run, to escape once and for all from this nightmare.
Before the footman could open the door, Magda dove at th e latch and tumbled out. Cool mud gave beneath her feet and oozed into the fabric of her shoes, and she stood for a moment, dumbfounded by the oddly recognizable sensation.
Chaos whirled around her in a cacophony of foreign sounds and movement. The inside of the carriage had been insulated from the clamor of the town, and Magda stumbled forward as her brain attempted to connect the two.
A strong arm seized her from behind. James had her tightly about the waist and tugged her to him just as a horse trampled by, its rider cursing unintelligibly, close enough to fill her nostrils with the earthy smell of horse and to feel the whoosh of its jangling harness in her hair.
Almost run over, again. Her eyes darted up and down the street. But no taxicab in sight here.
James breathed heavily, his cheek warm against her chilled skin. She crumpled against his strong chest. No modern buildings. So many horses…
His thumb stroked absent circles on her upper arm. She perceived the very real pounding of his heart through her wool dress. Not a dream.
Not New York. Just carriages and horses and period clothing as far as the eye could see.
James held her firm as she fainted in his arms.
"She needs a doctor, James!"
Magda had half heard the woman, clearly agitated, carrying on for some time in a hollow drone, as if speaking from the end of a very long tunnel. Her voice, surprisingly deep for a female, slowly resolved into intelligible words that pierced Magda's consciousness.
"You have a care," she shouted, "who you bring under your roof, young man!"
"I'm no longer a young man, Margaret," James replied wearily, "and you're not our mother to speak to me so."
" You have a care" she enunciated, heart set on continuing her train of thought, "who you bring under your roof! You are not the only one bearing the name of Graham of Montrose."
"Last I checked, dearest sister, your name is now Napier." "You understand my meaning!" Magda heard a swat, sounding much like a glove hitting a man's head. "And you are lucky I called today, or you might have made an ill-informed decision. Now you will get that maid in here and send for a physician at once!"
"No doctor." Magda's eyes fluttered open, and once again her first sight was James, sitting at her side, a cool cloth pressed to her wrist, concern etched in the corners of his eyes. He gave her a quiet smile that shut out the incessant nattering in the background.
"I find you once again in my bed, hen." His voice was gentle as he began to lightly stroke the damp cloth along the sensitive skin of her inner wrist and palm.
"Not in front of me, you scamp," the woman reprimanded, wagging a beige glove at James. "I'll not have you endeavor your latest conquest in my sight!"