A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 15

   

“Did ye, then?” His own hand came to rest lightly on my back, moving unconsciously. I knew that touch—the need of touching only to reassure oneself that the other was actually there, present in flesh.

“I thought I couldn’t live, looking back—couldn’t bear it.” My throat was thick with the memory of it.

“I know,” he said softly, his hand rising to touch my hair. “But ye had the bairn—ye had a husband. It wasna right to turn your back on them.”

“It wasn’t right to turn my back on you.” I blinked, but tears were leaking from the corners of my eyes. He drew my head close, put out his tongue, and delicately licked my face, which surprised me so much that I laughed in the midst of a sob, and nearly choked.

“I do love thee, as meat loves salt,” he quoted, and laughed, too, very softly. “Dinna weep, Sassenach. Ye’re here; so am I. There’s naught that matters, aside from that.”

I leaned my forehead against his cheek, and put my arms around him. My hands rested flat on the planes of his back, and I stroked him from the blade of his shoulder to the tapering small of his back, lightly, always lightly, tracing the whole of him, the shape of him, and not the scars that reamed his skin.

He held me close, and sighed deeply.

“D’ye ken we’ve been wed this time nearly twice as long as the last?”

I drew back and frowned dubiously at him, accepting the distraction.

“Were we not married in between?”

That took him by surprise; he frowned, too, and ran a finger slowly down the sunburnt bridge of his nose in thought.

“Well, there’s a question for a priest, to be sure,” he said. “I should think we were—but if so, are we not both bigamists?”

“Were, not are,” I corrected, feeling slightly uneasy. “But we weren’t, really. Father Anselme said so.”

“Anselme?”

“Father Anselme—a Franciscan priest at the Abbey of St. Anne. But perhaps you wouldn’t recall him; you were very ill at the time.”

“Oh, I recall him,” he said. “He would come and sit wi’ me at night, when I couldna sleep.” He smiled, a little lopsided; that time wasn’t something he wished to remember. “He liked ye a great deal, Sassenach.”

“Oh? And what about you?” I asked, wanting to distract him from the memory of St. Anne. “Didn’t you like me?”

“Oh, I liked ye fine then,” he assured me. “I maybe like ye even more now, though.”

“Oh, do you, indeed.” I sat up a little straighter, preening. “What’s different?”

He tilted his head to one side, eyes narrowing a bit in appraisal.

“Well, ye fart less in your sleep,” he began judiciously, then ducked, laughing, as a pinecone whizzed past his left ear. I seized a chunk of wood, but before I could bat him over the head with it, he lunged and caught me by the arms. He shoved me flat in the grass and collapsed on top of me, pinning me effortlessly.

“Get off, you oaf! I do not fart in my sleep!”

“Now, how would ye ken that, Sassenach? Ye sleep so sound, ye wouldna wake, even to the sound of your own snoring.”

“Oh, you want to talk about snoring, do you? You—”

“Ye’re proud as Lucifer,” he said, interrupting. He was still smiling, but the words were more serious. “And ye’re brave. Ye were always bolder than was safe; now ye’re fierce as a wee badger.”

“So I’m arrogant and ferocious. This does not sound like much of a catalog of womanly virtues,” I said, puffing a bit as I strained to wriggle out from under him.

“Well, ye’re kind, too,” he said, considering. “Verra kind. Though ye are inclined to do it on your own terms. Not that that’s bad, mind,” he added, neatly recapturing the arm I had extricated. He pinned my wrist over my head.

“Womanly,” he murmured, brows knotted in concentration. “Womanly virtues . . .” His free hand crept between us and fastened on my breast.

“Besides that!”

“You’re verra clean,” he said approvingly. He let go my wrist and ruffled a hand through my hair—which was indeed clean, smelling of sunflower and marigolds.

“I’ve never seen any woman wash herself sae much as you do—save Brianna, perhaps.

“Ye’re no much of a cook,” he went on, squinting thoughtfully. “Though ye’ve never poisoned anyone, save on purpose. And I will say ye sew a neat seam—though ye like it much better if it’s through someone’s flesh.”

“Thanks so much!”

“Tell me some more virtues,” he suggested. “Perhaps I’ve missed one.”

“Hmph! Gentleness, patience . . .” I floundered.

“Gentle? Christ.” He shook his head. “Ye’re the most ruthless, bloodthirsty—”

I darted my head upward, and nearly succeeded in biting him in the throat. He jerked back, laughing.

“No, ye’re no verra patient, either.”

I gave up struggling for the moment and collapsed flat on my back, tousled hair spread out on the grass.

“So what is my most endearing trait?” I demanded.

“Ye think I’m funny,” he said, grinning.

“I . . . do . . . not . . .” I grunted, struggling madly. He merely lay on top of me, tranquilly oblivious to my pokings and thumpings, until I exhausted myself and lay gasping underneath him.

“And,” he said thoughtfully, “ye like it verra much when I take ye to bed. No?”

“Er . . .” I wanted to contradict him, but honesty forbade. Besides, he bloody well knew I did.

“You are squashing me,” I said with dignity. “Kindly get off.”

“No?” he repeated, not moving.

“Yes! All right! Yes! Will you bloody get off?!”

He didn’t get off, but bent his head and kissed me. I was close-lipped, determined not to give in, but he was determined, too, and if one came right down to it . . . the skin of his face was warm, the plush of his beard stubble softly scratchy, and his wide sweet mouth . . . My legs were open in abandon and he was solid between them, bare chest smelling of musk and sweat and sawdust caught in the wiry auburn hair. . . . I was still hot with struggling, but the grass was damp and cool around us. . . . Well, all right; another minute, and he could have me right there, if he cared to.

He felt me yield, and sighed, letting his own body slacken; he no longer held me prisoner, but simply held me. He lifted his head then, and cupped my face with one hand.

“D’ye want to know what it is, really?” he asked, and I could see from the dark blue of his eyes that he meant it. I nodded, mute.

“Above all creatures on this earth,” he whispered, “you are faithful.”

I thought of saying something about St. Bernard dogs, but there was such tenderness in his face that I said nothing, instead merely staring up at him, blinking against the green light that filtered through the needles overhead.

“Well,” I said at last, with a deep sigh of my own, “so are you. Quite a good thing, really. Isn’t it?”

21

WE HAVE IGNITION

MRS. BUG HAD MADE chicken fricassee for supper, but that wasn’t sufficient to account for the air of suppressed excitement that Bree and Roger brought with them when they came in. They were both smiling, her cheeks were flushed, and his eyes as bright as hers.

So when Roger announced that they had great news, it was perhaps only reasonable that Mrs. Bug should leap directly to the obvious conclusion.

“You’re wi’ child again!” she cried, dropping a spoon in her excitement. She clapped her hands together, inflating like a birthday balloon. “Oh, the joy of it! And about time, too,” she added, letting go her hands to wag a finger at Roger. “And here was me thinkin’ as I should add a bit o’ ginger and brimstone to your parritch, young man, so as to bring ye up to scratch! But ye kent your business weel enough in the end, I see. And you, a bhailach, what d’ye think? A bonny wee brother for ye!”

Jemmy, thus addressed, stared up at her, mouth open.

“Er . . .” said Roger, flushing up.

“Or, of course, it might be a wee sister, I suppose,” Mrs. Bug admitted. “But good news, good news, either way. Here, a luaidh, have a sweetie on the strength of it, and the rest of us will drink to it!”

Obviously bewildered, but strongly in favor of sweeties, Jem took the proffered molasses drop and stuck it promptly in his mouth.

“But he isn’t—” Bree began.

“Nank you, Missus Bug,” Jem said hastily, putting a hand over his mouth lest his mother try to repossess this distinctly forbidden predinner treat on grounds of impoliteness.

“Oh, a wee sweetie will do him nay harm,” Mrs. Bug assured her, picking up the fallen spoon and wiping it on her apron. “Call Arch in, a muirninn, and we’ll tell him your news. Blessed Bride save ye, lass, I thought ye’d never get round to it! Here was all the ladies saying’ as they didna ken whether ye’d turned cold to your husband, or was it him maybe, lackin’ the vital spark, but as it is—”

“Well, as it is,” said Roger, raising his voice in order to be heard.

“I’m not pregnant!” said Bree, very loudly.

The succeeding silence echoed like a thunderclap.

“Oh,” said Jamie mildly. He picked up a serviette and sat down, tucking it into the neck of his shirt. “Well, then. Shall we eat?” He held out a hand to Jem, who scrambled up onto the bench beside him, still sucking fiercely on his molasses drop.

Mrs. Bug, momentarily turned to stone, revived with a marked “Hmpf!” Massively affronted, she turned to the sideboard and slapped down a stack of pewter plates with a clatter.

Roger, still rather flushed, appeared to find the situation funny, judging from the twitching of his mouth. Brianna was incandescent, and breathing like a grampus.

“Sit down, darling,” I said, in the tentative manner of one addressing a large explosive device. “You . . . um . . . had some news, you said?”

“Never mind!” She stood still, glaring. “Nobody cares, since I’m not pregnant. After all, what else could I possibly do that anybody would think was worthwhile?” She shoved a violent hand through her hair, and encountering the ribbon tying it back, yanked this loose and flung it on the ground.

“Now, sweetheart . . .” Roger began. I could have told him this was a mistake; Frasers in a fury tended to pay no attention to honeyed words, being instead inclined to go for the throat of the nearest party unwary enough to speak to them.

“Don’t you ‘sweetheart’ me!” she snapped, turning on him. “You think so, too! You think everything I do is a waste of time if it isn’t washing clothes or cooking dinner or mending your effing socks! And you blame me for not getting pregnant, too, you think it’s my fault! Well, it’s NOT, and you know it!”

“No! I don’t think that, I don’t at all. Brianna, please. . . .” He stretched out a hand to her, then thought better of the gesture and withdrew it, clearly feeling that she might take his hand off at the wrist.

“Less EAT, Mummy!” Jemmy piped up helpfully. A long string of molasses-tinged saliva flowed from the corner of his mouth and dripped down the front of his shirt. Seeing this, his mother turned on Mrs. Bug like a tiger.

“Now see what you’ve done, you interfering old busybody! That was his last clean shirt! And how dare you talk about our private lives with everybody in sight, what possible earthly business of yours is it, you beastly old gossiping—”

Seeing the futility of protest, Roger put his arms round her from behind, picked her up bodily off the floor, and carried her out the back door, this departure accented by incoherent protests from Bree and grunts of pain from Roger, as she kicked him repeatedly in the shins, with considerable force and accuracy.

I went to the door and closed it delicately, shutting off the sounds of further altercation in the yard.

“She gets that from you, you know,” I said reproachfully, sitting down opposite Jamie. “Mrs. Bug, that smells wonderful. Do let’s eat!”

Mrs. Bug dished the fricassee in huffy silence, but declined to join us at table, instead putting on her cloak and stamping out the front door, leaving us to deal with the clearing-up. An excellent bargain, if you asked me.

We ate in blissful peace, the quiet broken only by the clink of spoons on pewter and the occasional question from Jemmy as to why molasses was sticky, how did milk get into the cow, and when would he get his little brother?

“What am I going to say to Mrs. Bug?” I asked, in the brief hiatus between queries.

“Why ought ye to say anything, Sassenach? It wasna you calling her names.”

“Well, no. But I’d be willing to bet that Brianna isn’t going to apologize—”

“Why should she?” He shrugged. “She was provoked, after all. And I canna think Mrs. Bug has lived sae long without being called a gossiping busybody before. She’ll wear herself out, telling Arch all about it, and tomorrow it will be fine again.”

“Well,” I said uncertainly. “Perhaps so. But Bree and Roger—”

He smiled at me, dark blue eyes crinkling into triangles.

“Dinna feel as though every disaster is yours to fash yourself about, mo chridhe,” he said. He reached across and patted my hand. “Roger Mac and the lass must work it out between them—and the lad did appear to have a decent grip on the situation.”

He laughed, and I joined him, reluctantly.

“Well, it will be mine to fash about, if she’s broken his leg,” I remarked, getting up to fetch cream for the coffee. “Likely he’ll come crawling back to have it mended.”

At this apropos moment, a knock sounded on the back door. Wondering why Roger would knock, I opened it, and stared in astonishment at the pale face of Thomas Christie.

HE WAS NOT ONLY PALE, but sweating, and had a bloodstained cloth wrapped round one hand.

“I wouldna discommode ye, mistress,” he said, holding himself stiffly. “I’ll just . . . wait upon your convenience.”

“Nonsense,” I said, rather shortly. “Come into the surgery while there’s still some light.”

I took care not to catch Jamie’s eye directly, but I glanced at him as I bent to push in the bench. He was leaning forward to put a saucer over my coffee, his eyes on Tom Christie with an air of thoughtful speculation that I had last seen in a bobcat watching a flight of ducks overhead. Not urgent, but definitely taking notice.

Christie was taking no notice of anything beyond his injured hand, reasonably enough. My surgery’s windows were oriented to east and south, to take best advantage of morning light, but even near sunset, the room held a soft radiance—the setting sun’s reflection from the shimmering leaves of the chestnut grove. Everything in the room was suffused with golden light, save Tom Christie’s face, which was noticeably green.

“Sit down,” I said, shoving a stool hastily behind him. His knees buckled as he lowered himself; he landed harder than he had intended, jarring his hand, and let out a small exclamation of pain.

I put a thumb on the big vein at the wrist, to help slow the bleeding, and unwound the cloth. Given his aspect, I was expecting a severed finger or two, and was surprised to find a simple gash in the meat at the base of the thumb, angled down and running onto the wrist. It was deep enough to gape, and still bleeding freely, but no major vessels had been cut, and he had by great good fortune only nicked the thumb tendon; I could mend that with a stitch or two.

I looked up to tell him this, only to see his eyes roll back in his head.

“Help!” I shouted, dropping the hand and grabbing for his shoulders as he toppled backward.

A crash of overturned bench and the thump of running feet answered my call, and Jamie burst into the room in a heartbeat. Seeing me dragged off my feet by Christie’s weight, he seized the man by the scruff of the neck and shoved him forward like a rag doll, pushing Christie’s head down between his legs.

“Is he desperate bad?” Jamie asked, squinting at Christie’s injured hand, which was resting on the floor, oozing blood. “Shall I lay him on the table?”

“I don’t think so.” I had a hand under Christie’s jaw, feeling for his pulse. “He’s not hurt badly; he’s only fainted. Yes, see, he’s coming round. Keep your head down for a bit, now, you’ll be quite all right in a moment.” I addressed this latter remark to Christie, who was breathing like a steam engine, but had steadied a little.

Jamie removed his hand from Christie’s neck, and wiped it on his kilt with an expression of mild distaste. Christie had broken out in a profuse cold sweat; I could feel my own hand slimy with it, but picked up the fallen cloth and wiped my hand more tactfully with that.

“Would you like to lie down?” I asked, bending to look at Christie’s face. He was still a ghastly color, but shook his head.

“No, mistress. I’m quite all right. Only taken queer for a moment.” He spoke hoarsely, but firmly enough, so I contented myself with pressing the cloth hard against the wound to stanch the dripping blood.

Jemmy was loitering in the doorway, wide-eyed, but showing no particular alarm; blood was nothing new to him.

“Shall I fetch ye a dram, Tom?” Jamie said, eyeing the patient warily. “I ken ye dinna hold wi’ strong drink, but there’s a time for it, surely?”

Christie’s mouth worked a little, but he shook his head.

“I . . . no. Perhaps . . . a little wine?”

“Take a little wine for thy stomach’s sake, eh? Aye, fine. Take heart, man, I’ll fetch it.” Jamie clapped him encouragingly on the shoulder, and went briskly off, taking Jemmy by the hand as he went out.

Christie’s mouth tightened in a grimace. I had noticed before that like some Protestants, Tom Christie regarded the Bible as being a document addressed specifically to himself and confided to his personal care for prudent distribution to the masses. Thus, he quite disliked hearing Catholics—i.e., Jamie—quoting casually from it. I had also noticed that Jamie was aware of this, and took every opportunity to make such quotes.

“What happened?” I asked, as much to distract Christie as because I wished to know.

Christie broke off his glower at the empty doorway and glanced at his left hand—then hastily away, going pale again.

“An accident,” he said gruffly. “I was cutting rushes; the knife slipped.” His right hand flexed slightly as he said this, and I glanced at it.

“No bloody wonder!” I said. “Here, keep that up in the air.” I lifted the injured left hand, tightly wrapped, above his head, let go of it, and reached for the other.

He had been suffering from a condition in the right hand called Dupuytren’s contracture—or at least it would be called that, once Baron Dupuytren got round to describing it in another sixty or seventy years. Caused by a thickening and shortening of the fibrous sheet that kept the hand’s tendons in place when the fingers flexed, the result of it was to draw the ring finger in toward the palm of the hand. In advanced cases, the little finger and sometimes the middle finger as well were involved. Tom Christie’s case had advanced quite a bit since I had last had the chance of a good look at his hand.

“Did I tell you?” I demanded rhetorically, pulling gently on the clawed fingers. The middle finger could still be halfway unfolded; the ring and little fingers could barely be lifted away from the palm. “I said it would get worse. No wonder the knife slipped—I’m surprised you could even hold it.”

A slight flush appeared under the clipped salt-and-pepper beard, and he glanced away.

“I could have taken care of it easily months ago,” I said, turning the hand to look critically at the angle of contracture. “It would have been a very simple matter. Now it will be rather more complicated—but I can still correct it, I think.”

Had he been a less stolid man, I should have described him as wriggling with embarrassment. As it was, he merely twitched slightly, the flush deepening over his face.

“I—I do not desire—”

“I don’t bloody care what you desire,” I told him, putting the clawed hand back in his lap. “If you don’t allow me to operate on that hand, it will be all but useless inside six months. You can barely write with it now, am I right?”

His eyes met mine, deep gray and startled.

“I can write,” he said, but I could tell that the belligerence in his voice hid a deep uneasiness. Tom Christie was an educated man, a scholar, and the Ridge’s schoolteacher. It was to him that many of the Ridge people went for help in the composition of letters or legal documents. He took great pride in this; I knew the threat of loss of this ability was the best lever I had—and it was no idle threat.

“Not for long,” I said, and widened my eyes at him to make my meaning clear. He swallowed uneasily, but before he could reply, Jamie reappeared, holding a jug of wine.

“Best listen to her,” he advised Christie, setting it on the counter. “I ken what it’s like to try to write wi’ a stiff finger, aye?” He held up his own right hand and flexed it, looking rueful. “If she could mend that wi’ her wee knife, I’d lay my hand on the block this instant.”

Jamie’s problem was almost the reverse of Christie’s, though the effect was quite similar. The ring finger had been smashed so badly that the joints had frozen; it could not be bent. Consequently, the two fingers on either side had limited motion, as well, though the joint capsules were intact.

“The difference being that your hand isn’t getting any worse,” I told Jamie. “His is.”

Christie made a small movement, pushing his right hand down between his thighs, as though to hide it.

“Aye, well,” he said uncomfortably. “It can bide awhile, surely.”

“At least long enough to let my wife mend the other,” Jamie observed, pouring out a cup of wine. “Here—can ye hold it, Tom, or shall I—?” He made a questioning gesture, holding the cup as though to feed it to Christie, who snatched his right hand out of the sheltering folds of his clothes.

“I’ll manage,” he snapped, and took the wine—holding the cup between thumb and forefinger with an awkwardness that made him flush even more deeply. His left hand still hung in the air above his shoulder. He looked foolish, and obviously felt it.

Jamie poured another cup and handed it to me, ignoring Christie. I would have thought it natural tact on his part, were I not aware of the complicated history between the two men. There was always a small barbed edge in any dealings between Jamie and Tom Christie, though they managed to keep an outwardly cordial face on things.

With any other man, Jamie’s display of his own injured hand would have been just what it seemed—reassurance, and the offering of fellowship in infirmity. With Tom Christie, it might have been consciously meant as reassurance, but there was a threat implied, as well, though perhaps Jamie couldn’t help that.

The simple fact was that people came to Jamie for help more often than they did to Christie. Jamie had widespread respect and admiration, despite his crippled hand. Christie was not a personally popular man; he might well lose what social position he had, if he lost his ability to write. And—as I had bluntly noted—Jamie’s hand would not get worse.

Christie’s eyes had narrowed a little over his cup. He hadn’t missed the threat, whether intended or not. He wouldn’t; Tom Christie was a suspicious man by nature, and inclined to see threat where it wasn’t intended.

“I think that’s settled a bit by now; let me take care of it.” I took hold of his left hand, gently, and unwrapped it. The bleeding had stopped. I set the hand to soak in a bowl of water boiled with garlic, added a few drops of pure ethanol for additional disinfection, and set about gathering my kit.

It was beginning to grow dark, and I lit the alcohol lamp Brianna had made for me. By its bright, steady flame, I could see that Christie’s face had lost its momentary flush of anger. He wasn’t as pale as he had been, but looked uneasy as a vole at a convention of badgers, his eyes following my hands as I laid out my sutures, needles, and scissors, all clean and gleaming-sharp in the light.

Jamie didn’t leave, but stayed leaning against the counter, sipping his own cup of wine—presumably, in case Christie passed out again.

A fine trembling ran through Christie’s hand and arm, braced as they were on the table. He was sweating again; I could smell it, acrid and bitter. It was the scent of that, half-forgotten, but immediately familiar, that finally made me realize the difficulty: it was fear. He was afraid of blood, perhaps; afraid of pain, certainly.

I kept my eyes fixed on my work, bending my head lower to keep him from seeing anything in my face. I should have seen it sooner; I would have, I thought, had he not been a man. His paleness, the fainting . . . not due to loss of blood, but to shock at seeing blood lost.

I stitched up men and boys routinely; mountain farming was rough work, and it was a rare week when I wasn’t presented with ax wounds, hoe gouges, spud slashes, hog bites, scalp lacerations sustained while falling over something, or some other minor calamity requiring stitches. By and large, all my patients behaved with complete matter-of-factness, accepting my ministrations stoically, and going right back to work. But nearly all of the men were Highlanders, I realized, and many not only Highlanders but erstwhile soldiers.

Tom Christie was a townsman, from Edinburgh—he had been imprisoned in Ardsmuir as a Jacobite supporter, but had never been a fighting man. He had been a commissary officer. In fact, I realized with surprise, he had likely never even seen a real military battle, let alone engaged in the daily physical conflict with nature that Highland farming entailed.

I became aware of Jamie, still standing in the shadows, sipping wine and watching with a faintly ironic dispassion. I glanced up quickly at him; his expression didn’t alter, though he met my eyes and nodded, very slightly.

Tom Christie’s lip was fixed between his teeth; I could hear the faint whistle of his breath. He couldn’t see Jamie, but knew he was there; the stiffness of his back said as much. He might be afraid, Tom Christie, but he had some courage to him.

It would have hurt him less, could he have relaxed the clenched muscles of arm and hand. Under the circumstances, though, I could hardly suggest as much. I could have insisted that Jamie leave, but I was nearly finished. With a sigh of mingled exasperation and puzzlement, I clipped the final knot and laid down the scissors.

“All right, then,” I said, swiping the last of the coneflower ointment across the wound and reaching for a clean linen bandage. “Keep it clean. I’ll make up some fresh ointment for you; send Malva for it. Then come back in a week and I’ll take the stitches out.” I hesitated, glancing at Jamie. I felt some reluctance to use his presence as blackmail, but it was for Christie’s own good.

“I’ll take care of your right hand, then, too, shall I?” I said firmly.

He was still sweating, though the color in his face had begun to come back. He glanced at me, and then, involuntarily, at Jamie.

Jamie smiled faintly.

“Go on, then, Tom,” he said. “It’s naught to trouble ye. No but a wee nick. I’ve had worse.”

The words were spoken casually, but they might as well have been written in flaming letters a foot high. I’ve had worse.

Jamie’s face was still in shadow, but his eyes were clearly visible, slanted with his smile.

Tom Christie had not relaxed his rigid posture. He matched Jamie’s stare, closing his gnarled right hand over the bandaged left.

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