She’d been there many times before and knew exactly where it hung––which corner of which gallery, the portraits that hung around it, the number of steps to the closest bench. She knew how it looked in the various lights the museum curators allowed to reach the delicate, time-worn canvas in an attempt to protect it from fading. She had combed through every other painting they had and spoke with various members of the staff in search of other pieces she might recognize from among those that had hung at Lallybroch but the self-portrait was unmarked––they didn’t even know it was a self-portrait, made a point of correcting her on that possibility. She found no other canvases that had been painted by the brush of Ellen MacKenzie Fraser in all her trips to the National Gallery.
Claire took a deep breath upon walking through the doors before taking hold of Brianna’s hand and telling her, “This way.”
She thought about telling Brianna that this wasn’t, in fact, the first time that she had been to visit her grandmother’s portrait. There had been a week she and Frank spent in London before their move to Boston; a week in which Frank had appointments at consulates and embassies while he straightened out visas and the other necessary paperwork that would allow him to work at Harvard University, allow them to live in the United States for at least a year before a new round of paperwork would descend upon them. She found that wandering the various museums the city offered were as good a distraction as any and that the small snacks available in the gift shops were among the few foods that didn’t trigger nausea. She had stumbled across the portrait that first time––stood staring at it for over an hour before one of the staff approached her and asked if she was all right; she had been crying without knowing it. She went back every day until they left London.
“Mama, you don’t have to hold my hand like that,” Brianna objected with a self-conscious laugh. “I’m not seven; I won’t get lost in the crowd.”
“Sorry,” Claire said, relinquishing her grip. She wiped her sweaty palm against her thigh. “It’s through this door here.”
There had been a number of medical conferences Claire attended overseas over the years, many of which included layovers in London; Claire always pushed for at least a night there when possible, claiming it helped break up the trip, reduced jet lag. She always found a way to visit the gallery––had even bribed a security agent once to let her in after they had stopped admissions for the day. He had asked her what was so important about getting in when the gallery was closing so soon and she had no chance of seeing even a fraction of what the walls held. “I’m not here to see everything,” she had told him, “just one.”
Her breath caught the way it did every time. The hair––the same shade as Jamie and Brianna, unfaded by time or the accumulation of dust; her brow and nose were softer than Jamie’s, more like Brianna’s; the eyes were greyer MacKenzie eyes as opposed to the vibrant Fraser blue, but they sat like Jenny’s did.
“Holy…” Brianna exclaimed before trailing off speechless.
There were so few pieces of the life she’d led then with him that were left to her in this time. Brianna, of course, was the biggest and most important piece––a living reminder, constantly changing and growing but also entirely her own, a product of the twentieth century. The portrait––like the pearls she could hold in her hand––were something else, something unchanging and concrete. In those years between she knew she would never be able to stomach a visit to Culloden Moor and that going to Lallybroch itself would, likewise, be too painful; but Ellen’s portrait was something she could manage. It was a marker of the life she’d lost where she could visit and mourn without becoming a spectacle, without losing her grip on the twentieth century entirely. She could look at the mother-in-law she’d never met while wearing the same necklace of pearls and just about feel Jamie’s fingers brushing back her hair to fiddle with the clasp.
But this time she didn’t look at the portrait; she looked at Brianna.
“I want you to have these,” she said, pulling the pearl necklace from her pocket.
“What?” Brianna’s eyes widened then darted from Claire’s hand to the portrait and back. “No. I can’t take those from you–– he gave them to you.”
“Yes, he did. Family heirloom. This is what you do with heirlooms, you know,” Claire said with a smile as she moved to stand behind Brianna. She brushed the curtain of red hair aside so the clasp wouldn’t tangle. “You pass them on to the next generation. Your father would want you to have them.”
Color flooded Brianna’s cheeks as her fingers gently touched the delicate roundels between the pearls.
“You look like your grandmother,” Claire said quietly and watched the color deepen further.
She turned back to the portrait. She would see it again, she was sure, but it wouldn’t be here; it would be where she’d seen it first––proudly mounted on the wall at Lallybroch.
Ellen’s eyes stared back at her the same way they always did––with sympathy, comfort, and approval.