A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 11

   

The light was fading and the campfires began to glow in the dimness of the meadow beyond the stables. The smoke of them reached Roger’s nose, the scent warm and homelike, but nonetheless adding to the burn in his throat.

“I’ve no found sae much worth dyin’ for, myself,” Duncan said reflectively, then gave one of his quick, rare smiles. “But my grandsire, he’d say it only meant I was chosen to be damned. ‘By the decree of God, for His everlasting glory, some men and angels are predestined unto everlasting life, and others fore-ordained to everlasting death.’ He’d say that, whenever anyone spoke of Margaret.”

Roger nodded, recognizing the statement from the Westminster Confession. When was that—1646? 1647? A generation—or two—before Duncan’s grandfather.

“I expect it was easier for him to think her death was God’s will, and nothing to do with him,” Roger said, not without sympathy. “Ye’ll not believe it yourself, then? Predestination, I mean.”

He asked with true curiosity. The Presbyterians of his own time did still espouse predestination as a doctrine—but, a bit more flexible in attitude, tended to soft-pedal the notion of predestined damnation, and not to think too much on the idea that every detail of life was so predestined. Himself? God knew.

Duncan lifted his shoulders, the right rising higher and making him seem momentarily twisted. “God knows,” he said, and laughed. He shook his head, and drained his glass again.

“Nay, I think I don’t. But I wouldna say as much before Hiram Crombie—nor yet yon Christie.” Duncan lifted his chin toward the meadow, where he could see two dark figures, walking side by side toward the house. Arch Bug’s tall, stooped frame was easy to recognize, as was Tom Christie’s shorter, blocky build. He looked pugnacious even in silhouette, Roger thought, making short, sharp gestures as he walked, clearly arguing something with Arch.

“There’d be wicked fights ower it sometimes, in Ardsmuir,” Duncan said, watching the progress of the two figures. “The Catholics took it amiss, to be told they were damned. And Christie and his wee band took the greatest pleasure in telling them so.” His shoulders shook a little in suppressed laughter, and Roger wondered just how much whisky Duncan had had before he came out to the terrace. He’d never seen the older man so jovial.

“Mac Dubh put a stop to it, finally, when he made us all be Freemasons,” he added, leaning forward to pour a fresh glass. “But a few men were nearly killed, before that.” He lifted the decanter inquiringly in Roger’s direction.

Looking forward to a supper including both Tom Christie and Hiram Crombie, Roger accepted.

As Duncan leaned toward him to pour, still smiling, the last of the sun shone across his weathered face. Roger caught a glimpse of a faint white line through Duncan’s upper lip, half-visible beneath the hair, and realized quite suddenly why Duncan wore a long mustache—an unusual adornment, in a time when most men were clean-shaven.

He would not have spoken, likely, save for the whisky and the mood of strange alliance between them—two Protestants, amazingly bound to Catholics and bemused at the strange tides of fate that had washed over them; two men left quite alone by the misfortunes of life, and now surprised to find themselves the heads of households, holding the lives of strangers in their hands.

“Your lip, Duncan.” He touched his own mouth briefly. “What did that?”

“Och, that?” Duncan touched his own lip, surprised. “Nay, I was born wi’ a harelip, or so they said. I dinna recall it, myself; it was mended when I was nay more than a week old.”

It was Roger’s turn to be surprised.

“Who mended it?”

Duncan shrugged, one-shouldered this time.

“A traveling healer, my mither said. She’d quite resigned herself to losin’ me, she said, because I couldna suck, of course. She and my aunties all took it in turn to drap milk into my mouth from a rag, but she said I’d wasted nearly to a wee skeleton, when this charmer came by the village.”

He rubbed a knuckle self-consciously over his lip, smoothing the thick, grizzled hairs of his mustache.

“My faither gave him six herrings and a mull o’ snuff, and he stitched it up, and gave my mither a bit o’ some ointment to put on the wound. Well, and so . . .” He shrugged again, with a lopsided smile.

“Perhaps I was destined to live, after all. My grandsire said the Lord had chosen me—though God only kens what for.”

Roger was conscious of a faint ripple of unease, dulled though it was by whisky.

A Highland charmer who could repair a harelip? He took another drink, trying not to stare, but covertly examining Duncan’s face. He supposed it was possible; the scar was just barely visible—if you knew to look—under Duncan’s mustache, but didn’t extend up into the nostril. It must have been a fairly simple harelip, then, not one of the hideous cases like that one he’d read about—unable to look away from the page for horror—in Claire’s big black doctor’s book, where Dr. Rawlings had described a child born not only with a split lip, but missing the roof of its mouth, and most of the center of its face, as well.

There had been no drawing, thank God, but the visual picture conjured up by Rawlings’s spare description had been bad enough. He closed his eyes and breathed deep, inhaling the whisky’s perfume through his pores.

Was it possible? Perhaps. People did do surgery now, bloodstained, crude, and agonizing as it was. He’d seen Murray MacLeod, the apothecary from Campbelton, expertly stitch up a man’s cheek, laid open when the man was trampled by a sheep. Would it be any more difficult to stitch a child’s mouth?

He thought of Jemmy’s lip, tender as a blossom, pierced by needle and black thread, and shuddered.

“Are ye cold, then, a charaid? Shall we go in?” Duncan got his feet under him, as though to rise, but Roger waved the older man back.

“Ah, no. Goose walking on my grave.” He smiled, and accepted another drop to keep the nonexistent evening chill away. And yet he felt the hairs on his arms rise, just a little. Could there be another one—more—like us?

There had been, he knew. His own multiple-times great-grandmother, Geillis, for one. The man whose skull Claire had found, complete with silver fillings in its teeth, for another. But had Duncan met another, in some remote Highland village half a century before?

Christ, he thought, freshly unnerved. How often does it happen? And what happens to them?

Before they had quite reached the bottom of the decanter, he heard footsteps behind him, and the rustle of silk.

“Mrs. Cameron.” He rose at once, the world tilting just a little, and took his hostess’s hand, bowing over it.

Her long hand touched his face, as was her habit, her sensitive fingertips confirming his identity.

“Och, there ye are, Jo. Had a good journey wi’ the wee lad, did ye?” Duncan struggled to rise, handicapped by whisky and his single arm, but Ulysses, Jocasta’s butler, had materialized silently out of the twilight behind his mistress in time to move her wicker chair into place. She sank into it without so much as putting a hand out to see that it was there, Roger noticed; she simply knew it would be.

Roger viewed the butler with interest, wondering who Jocasta had bribed to get him back. Accused—and very likely guilty of—the death of a British naval officer on Jocasta’s property, Ulysses had been forced to flee the colony. But Lieutenant Wolff had not been considered a great loss to the navy—and Ulysses was indispensable to Jocasta Cameron. All things might not be possible with gold—but he was willing to bet that Jocasta Cameron hadn’t yet met a circumstance she couldn’t mend with money, political connections, or guile.

“Oh, aye,” she replied to her husband, smiling and putting out a hand to him. “’Twas such fun to show him off, husband! We’d a wonderful luncheon with old Mrs. Forbes and her daughter, and the wee bairn sang a song and charmed them all. Mrs. Forbes had the Montgomery lasses in, as well, and Miss Ogilvie, and we had wee lamb cutlets wi’ raspberry sauce and fried apples and—oh, is that you, Mr. Christie? Do come and join us!” She raised her voice a little, and her face, appearing to look expectantly into the gloom over Roger’s shoulder.

“Mrs. Cameron. Your servant, madam.” Christie stepped up onto the terrace, making a courtly bow that was no less punctilious for the fact that its recipient was blind. Arch Bug followed him, bowing in turn over Jocasta’s hand, and making a genial noise in his throat by way of greeting.

Chairs were brought out, more whisky, a plate of savories appeared as by magic, candles were lit—and suddenly it was a party, echoing on a higher plane the sense of slightly nervous festivity taking place in the meadow below. There was music in the distance; the sound of a tin whistle, playing a jig.

Roger let it all wash over him, enjoying the brief sense of relaxation and irresponsibility. Just for tonight, there was no need to worry; everyone was gathered, safe, fed, and prepared for the morrow’s journey.

He needn’t even trouble to keep up his end of the conversation; Tom Christie and Jocasta were enthusiastically discussing the literary scene in Edinburgh and a book he’d never heard of, with Duncan, looking so mellow that he might slide out of his chair any minute, putting in the occasional remark, and old Arch—where was Arch? Oh, there; gone back toward the meadow, having doubtless thought of some last minute thing he must tell someone.

He blessed Jamie Fraser for his forethought in sending Arch and Tom with him. Between the two of them, they’d saved him from any number of blunders, managed the ten thousand necessary details, and eased the fears of the new tenants regarding this latest leap into the unknown.

He took a deep, contented breath of air scented with the homely smells of campfires in the distance and roasting dinner near at hand—and belatedly recalled the one small detail whose welfare was still his exclusive concern.

Excusing himself, he made his way into the house, and discovered Jem down below in the main kitchen, cozily ensconced in the corner of a settle, eating bread pudding with melted butter and maple syrup on it.

“That’s never your dinner, is it?” he asked, sitting down beside his son.

“Uh-huh. Want some, Daddy?” Jem extended a dripping spoon upward toward him, and he bent hastily to take the offered mouthful before it fell off. It was delicious, bursting-sweet and creamy on the tongue.

“Mmm,” he said, swallowing. “Well, let’s not tell Mummy or Grannie, shall we? They’ve this odd prejudice toward meat and vegetables.”

Jem nodded, agreeable, and offered him another spoonful. They consumed the bowl together in a companionable silence, after which Jem crawled into his lap, and leaning a sticky face against his chest, fell sound asleep.

Servants bustled to and fro around them, smiling kindly now and then. He should, he thought vaguely, get up. Dinner would be being served in a moment—he saw the platters of roasted duck and mutton being skillfully laid out, bowls mounded with heaps of fluffy, steaming rice soaked with gravy, and a huge sallet of greens being tossed with vinegar.

Filled with whisky, bread pudding, and contentment, though, he lingered, putting off from moment to moment the necessity of parting from Jem and ending the sweet peace of holding his sleeping son.

“Mister Roger? I take him, shall I?” said a soft voice. He looked up from an examination of Jem’s hair, which had bits of bread pudding stuck in it, to see Phaedre, Jocasta’s body servant, stooping before him, hands held out to receive the boy.

“I wash him, put him to his bed, sir,” she said, her oval face as soft as her voice as she looked at Jem.

“Oh. Yes, sure. Thanks.” Roger sat up, Jem in his arms, and rose carefully, holding Jem’s considerable weight. “Here—I’ll carry him up for you.”

He followed the slave up the narrow stairs from the kitchen, admiring—in a purely abstract and aesthetic sort of way—the grace of her carriage. How old was she? he wondered. Twenty, twenty-two? Would Jocasta allow her to marry? She must have admirers, surely. But he knew how valuable she was to Jocasta, too—seldom out of her mistress’s presence. Not easy to reconcile that with a home and family of her own.

At the top of the stair, she stopped and turned to take Jem from him; he surrendered his limp burden with reluctance, but also with some relief. It was stifling-hot down below, and his shirt was damp with sweat where Jem had pressed against him.

“Mister Roger?” Phaedre’s voice stopped him, as he was about to take his leave. She was looking at him over Jem’s shoulder, eyes hesitant beneath the white curve of her head scarf.

“Aye?”

The thump of feet coming up the stairs made him move, narrowly avoiding Oscar, charging upstairs with an empty platter under his arm, evidently bound for the summer kitchen, where the fish were being fried. Oscar grinned at Roger as he passed, and blew a kiss toward Phaedre, whose lips tightened at the gesture.

She made a slight motion with her head, and Roger followed her down the hall, away from the bustle of the kitchen. She stopped near the door that led out to the stables, glancing round to be sure they were not overheard.

“I maybe shouldn’t say nothin’, sir—may be as it is nothin’. But I’m thinkin’ I should tell you, anyway.”

He nodded, shoving back the damp hair at his temple. The door stood open, and there was a little breeze here, thank God.

“We was in the town, sir, this morning, at Mr. Benjamin’s warehouse, you know the one? Down by the river.”

He nodded again, and she licked her lips.

“Master Jem, he got restless and went to pokin’ round, whilst the mistress talked with Mr. Benjamin. I followed him, seein’ as he falls into no trouble, and so I was right there when the man come in.”

“Aye? Which man was this?”

She shook her head, dark eyes serious.

“I dunno, sir. Was a big man, tall as you. Light-haired; he wasn’t wearin’ no wig. Was a gentleman, though.” By which, he assumed, she meant the man was well-dressed.

“And?”

“He looks round, sees Mr. Benjamin a-talkin’ with Miss Jo, and he takes a step to the side, like as he don’t want no one takin’ notice he there. But then he sees Mr. Jem, and he get a sharp kind of look on his face.”

She pulled Jem a little closer, recalling.

“I ain’t likin’ that look, sir, tell you truly. I see him start toward Jemmy and I go quick and pick the lad up, same as I got him now. The man look surprised, then like he think something’s funny; he smile at Jem and ax him who his daddy be?”

She gave a quick smile, patting Jem’s back.

“Folk ax him that all the time, sir, downtown, and he speak right up, say his daddy Roger MacKenzie, same as he always do. This man, he laugh and ruffle Jem’s hair—they all do that, sir, he gots such pretty hair. Then he say, ‘Is he, then, my wee maneen, is he indeed?’”

Phaedre was a natural mimic. She caught the Irish lilt of it perfectly, and the sweat turned cold on Roger’s skin.

“And then what happened?” he demanded. “What did he do?” Unconsciously, he glanced over her shoulder through the open door, searching the night outside for danger.

Phaedre hunched her shoulders, shivering slightly.

“He ain’t do nothin’, sir. But he look at Jem real close, and then at me, and he smile, right in my eyes. I ain’t likin’ that smile, sir, not one bit.” She shook her head. “But then I hear Mr. Benjamin lift his voice behind me, callin’ out to say does the gentleman want him? And the man turn quick-like on his heel, and be gone out the door, just like that.” She clutched Jem with one arm, and snapped the fingers of her free hand briefly.

“I see.” The bread pudding had formed a solid mass that lay like iron in his stomach. “Did you say anything to your mistress about this man?”

She shook her head, solemn.

“No, sir. He ain’t really done nothin’, like I say. But he trouble me, sir, and so I study on it, comin’ home, and think finally, well, I best tell you, sir, and I gets the chance.”

“Ye did right,” he said. “Thank you, Phaedre.” He fought the urge to take Jem from her, hold him tight. “Would ye—when ye’ve got him to bed, will ye stay with him? Just until I come up. I’ll tell your mistress I asked you to.”

Her dark eyes met his with perfect understanding, and she nodded.

“Aye, sir. I keep him safe.” She bobbed the shadow of a curtsy, and went up the stairs toward the room he shared with Jem, humming something soft and rhythmic to the boy.

He breathed slowly, trying to master the overwhelming urge to seize a horse from the stables, ride to Cross Creek, and search the place, going from house to house in the dark until he found Stephen Bonnet.

“Right,” he said aloud. “And then what?” His fists curled up involuntarily, knowing quite well what to do, even as his mind acknowledged the futility of such a course.

He fought down rage and helplessness, the last of the whisky lighting his blood, throbbing in his temples. He stepped abruptly through the open door into the night, for it was full dark now. From this side of the house, the meadow was invisible, but he could still smell the smoke of their fires, and catch the faint trill of music on the air.

He’d known Bonnet would come again, one day. Down beside the lawn, the white bulk of Hector Cameron’s mausoleum was a pale smear on the night. And safe inside it, hidden in the coffin that waited for Hector’s wife, Jocasta, lay a fortune in Jacobite gold, the long-held secret of River Run.

Bonnet knew the gold existed, suspected it was on the plantation. He had tried for it once before, and failed. He was not a careful man, Bonnet—but he was persistent.

Roger felt his bones strain in his flesh, urgent with desire to hunt and kill the man who had raped his wife, threatened his family. But there were seventy-six people depending on him—no, seventy-seven. Vengeance warred with responsibility—and, most reluctantly, gave way.

He breathed slow and deep, feeling the knot of the rope scar tighten in his throat. No. He had to go, see the new tenants safe. The thought of sending them with Arch and Tom, while he remained behind to search for Bonnet, was tempting—but the job was his; he couldn’t abandon it for the sake of a time-consuming—and likely futile—personal quest.

Nor could he leave Jem unprotected.

He must tell Duncan, though; Duncan could be trusted to take steps for the protection of River Run, to send word to the authorities in Cross Creek, to make inquiries.

And Roger would make sure that Jem was safe away, too, come morning, held before him on his saddle, kept in his sight every inch of the way to the sanctuary of the mountains.

“Who’s your daddy?” he muttered, and a fresh surge of rage pulsed through his veins. “God damn it, I am, you bastard!”

PART THREE

To Every Thing

There Is a Season

16

LE MOT JUSTE

August 1773

YE’RE SMILING TO yourself,” Jamie said in my ear. “Nice, was it?”

I turned my head and opened my eyes, finding them on a level with his mouth—which was smiling, too.

“Nice,” I said thoughtfully, tracing the line of his wide lower lip with the tip of one finger. “Are you being deliberately modest, or are you hoping to inspire me to raptures of praise by means of classic understatement?”

The mouth widened further, and his teeth closed gently on my questing finger for a moment before releasing it.

“Oh, modesty, to be sure,” he said. “If I’d hopes of inspiring ye to raptures, it wouldna be with my words, now, would it?”

One hand ran lightly down my back in illustration.

“Well, the words help,” I said.

“They do?”

“Yes. Just now, I was actually trying to rank ‘I love you, I like you, I worship you, I have to have my c*ck inside you,’ in terms of their relative sincerity.”

“Did I say that?” he said, sounding slightly startled.

“Yes. Weren’t you listening?”

“No,” he admitted. “I meant every word of it, though.” His hand cupped one buttock, weighing it appreciatively. “Still do, come to that.”

“What, even the last one?” I laughed and rubbed my forehead gently against his chest, feeling his jaw rest snugly on top of my head.

“Oh, aye,” he said, gathering me firmly against him with a sigh. “I will say the flesh requires a bit of supper and a wee rest before I think of doin’ it again, but the spirit is always willing. God, ye have the sweetest fat wee bum. Only seeing it makes me want to give it ye again directly. It’s lucky ye’re wed to a decrepit auld man, Sassenach, or ye’d be on your knees with your arse in the air this minute.”

He smelled delectably of road dust and dried sweat and the deep musk of a man who has just enjoyed himself thoroughly.

“Nice to be missed,” I said contentedly into the small space beneath his arm. “I missed you, too.”

My breath tickled him and his skin shivered suddenly, like a horse shedding flies. He shifted a bit, turning me so that my head fit into the hollow of his shoulder, and sighed in matching content.

“Well, so. I see the place is still standing.”

It was. It was late afternoon, the windows open, and the sun came low through the trees to make shifting patterns on the walls and linen sheets, so that we floated in a bower of murmuring shadow leaves.

“The house is standing, the barley is mostly in, and nothing’s died,” I said, settling myself comfortably to report. Now that we’d taken care of the most important thing, he’d want to know how the Ridge had fared in his absence.

“Mostly?” he said, neatly catching the dicey bit. “What happened? It rained, aye, but the barley should all have been in a week before.”

“Not rain. Grasshoppers.” I shuddered in memory. A cloud of the nasty goggle-eyed things had come whirring through, just at the end of the barley harvest. I’d gone up to my garden to pick greens, only to discover said greens seething with wedge-shaped bodies and shuffling, clawed feet, my lettuces and cabbages gnawed to ragged nubbins and the morning-glory vine on the palisade hanging in shreds.

“I ran and got Mrs. Bug and Lizzie, and we drove them off with brooms—but then they all rose up in a big cloud and headed up through the wood to the field beyond the Green Spring. They settled in the barley; you could hear the chewing for miles. It sounded like giants walking through rice.” Goosebumps of revulsion rose on my shoulders, and Jamie rubbed my skin absently, his hand large and warm.

“Mmphm. Was it only the one field they got, then?”

“Oh, yes.” I took a deep breath, still smelling the smoke. “We torched the field, and burnt them alive.”

His body jerked in surprise, and he looked down at me.

“What? Who thought of that?”

“I did,” I said, not without pride. In cold-blooded retrospect, it was a sensible thing to have done; there were other fields at risk, not only of barley, but of ripening corn, wheat, potatoes, and hay—to say nothing of the garden patches most families depended on.

In actual fact, it had been a decision made in boiling rage—sheer, bloody-minded revenge for the destruction of my garden. I would happily have ripped the wings off each insect and stamped on the remains—burning them had been nearly as good, though.

It was Murdo Lindsay’s field; slow in both thought and action, Murdo hadn’t had time to react properly to my announcement that I meant to fire the barley, and was still standing on the stoop of his cabin, mouth hanging open, as Brianna, Lizzie, Marsali, Mrs. Bug, and I ran round the field with armsful of faggots, lighting them from torches and hurling the blazing sticks as far as we could out into the sea of ripe, dry grain.

The dry grass went up with a crackle, and then a roar, as the fire took hold. Confused by the heat and smoke of a dozen fires, the grasshoppers flew up like sparks, igniting as their wings caught fire and vanishing into the rising column of smoke and whirling ash.

“Of course, it would be just then that Roger chose to arrive with the new tenants,” I said, repressing an urge to laugh inappropriately at the memory. “Poor things. It was getting dark, and here they all were, standing in the woods with their bundles and children, watching this—this bally conflagration going on, and all of us dancing round barefoot with our shifts kirtled up, hooting like gibbons and covered with soot.”

Jamie covered his eyes with one hand, plainly visualizing the scene. His chest shook briefly, and a wide grin spread beneath the hand.

“Oh, God. They must ha’ thought Roger Mac had brought them to hell. Or to a coven meeting, at least.”

A bubble of guilty laughter was forcing itself up from under my ribs.

“They did. Oh, Jamie—the looks on their faces!” I lost my grip and buried my own face in his chest. We shook together for a moment, laughing almost soundlessly.

“I did try to make them welcome,” I said, snorting a little. “We gave them supper, and found them all places to sleep—as many as we could fit in the house, the rest spread between Brianna’s cabin, the stable, and the barn. I came down quite late at night, though—I couldn’t sleep, for all the excitement—and found a dozen of them praying in the kitchen.”

They had been standing in a circle near the hearth, hands linked and heads bowed reverently. All the heads had snapped up at my appearance, eyes showing white in thin, haggard faces. They’d stared at me in total silence, and one of the women had let go the hand of the man beside her to hide her own hand under her apron. In another time and place, I should have thought she was reaching for some weapon—and perhaps she was, at that; I was fairly sure she was making the sign of the horns beneath the shelter of the ragged cloth.

I’d already discovered that only a few of them spoke English. I asked in my halting Gaelic whether they needed anything? They stared at me as though I had two heads, then after a moment, one of the men, a wizened creature with a thin mouth, had shaken his head the barest inch.

“Then they went right back to their praying, leaving me to skulk off back to bed.”

“Ye went down in your shift?”

“Well . . . yes. I didn’t expect anyone to be awake at that hour.”

“Mmphm.” His knuckles grazed my breast, and I could tell exactly what he was thinking. My summer night rail was thin, worn linen, and yes, all right, dammit, I supposed one could see through it a bit in the light, but the kitchen had been lit only by the ruddy glow of a smoored hearth.

“I dinna suppose ye went down in a proper nightcap, Sassenach?” Jamie asked, running a thoughtful hand through my hair. I’d loosened it to go to bed with him, and it was writhing off merrily in all directions, à la Medusa.

“Of course not. I had it plaited, though,” I protested. “Quite respectable!”

“Oh, quite,” he agreed, grinning, and pushing his fingers up into the wild mass of my hair, cradled my head in his hands and kissed me. His lips were chapped from wind and sun, but agreeably soft. He hadn’t shaved since his departure and his beard was short and curly, springy to the touch.

“Well, so. They’re sorted now, I expect? The tenants?” His lips brushed my cheek, and nibbled gently at my ear. I inhaled deeply.

“Ah. Oh. Yes. Arch Bug took them off in the morning; he’s got them parceled out with families all over the Ridge, and already working on . . .” My train of thought temporarily derailed, and I closed my fingers by reflex in the muscle of his chest.

“And ye told Murdo I’d make it right with him, of course. About the barley?”

Loading...