A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 48

   

“Who said that?” he asked, interested.

“Thomas Jefferson will say it—on behalf of the new republic. The Declaration of Independence, it’s called. Will be called.”

“All men,” he repeated. “Does he mean Indians, as well, do ye think?”

“I can’t say,” I said, rather irritated at being forced into this position. “I haven’t met him. If I do, I’ll ask, shall I?”

“Never mind.” He lifted his fingers in brief dismissal. “I’ll ask him myself, and I have the opportunity. Meanwhile, I’ll ask Brianna.” He glanced at me. “Though as to principle, Sassenach—”

He leaned back in his chair, folded his arms over his chest, and closed his eyes.

“As long as but a hundred of us remain alive,” he said precisely, “never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom—for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.”

“The Declaration of Arbroath,” he said, opening his eyes. He gave me a lopsided smile. “Written some four hundred years ago. Speaking o’ principles, aye?”

He stood up then, but still remained standing by the battered table he used as a desk, looking down at Ashe’s letter.

“As for my own principles . . .” he said, as though to himself, but then looked at me, as though suddenly realizing that I was still there.

“Aye, I think I mean to give Bird the muskets,” he said. “Though I may have cause to regret it, and I find them pointing at me, two or three years hence. But he shall have them, and do with them what seems best, to defend himself and his people.”

“The price of honor, is it?”

He looked down at me, with the ghost of a smile.

“Call it blood money.”

54

FLORA MACDONALD’S

BARBECUE

River Run Plantation

August 6, 1774

WHATEVER DID ONE SAY to an icon? Or an icon’s husband, for that matter?

“Oh, I shall faint, I know I shall.” Rachel Campbell was fluttering her fan hard enough to create a perceptible breeze. “Whatever shall I say to her?”

“‘Good day, Mrs. MacDonald’?” suggested her husband, a faint smile lurking at the corner of his withered mouth.

Rachel hit him sharply with her fan, making him chuckle as he dodged away. For all he was thirty-five years her senior, Farquard Campbell had an easy, teasing way with his wife, quite at odds with his usual dignified demeanor.

“I shall faint,” Rachel declared again, having evidently decided upon this as a definite social strategy.

“Well, ye must please yourself, of course, a nighean, but if ye do, it will have to be Mr. Fraser picking you up from the ground; my ancient limbs are scarcely equal to the task.”

“Oh!” Rachel cast a quick glance at Jamie, who smiled at her, then hid her blushes behind her fan. While plainly fond of her own husband, she made no secret of her admiration for mine.

“Your humble servant, madam,” Jamie gravely assured her, bowing.

She tittered. I shouldn’t like to wrong the woman, but she definitely tittered. I caught Jamie’s eye, and hid a smile behind my own fan.

“And what will you say to her, then, Mr. Fraser?”

Jamie pursed his lips and squinted thoughtfully at the brilliant sun streaming through the elm trees that edged the lawn at River Run.

“Oh, I suppose I might say that I’m glad the weather has kept fine for her. It was raining the last time we met.”

Rachel’s jaw dropped, and so did her fan, bouncing on the lawn. Her husband bent to pick it up for her, groaning audibly, but she had no attention to spare for him.

“You’ve met her?” she cried, eyes wide with excitement. “When? Where? With the prin—with him?”

“Ah, no,” Jamie said, smiling. “On Skye. I’d gone wi’ my father—a matter of sheep, it was. We chanced to meet Hugh MacDonald of Armadale in Portree—Miss Flora’s stepfather, aye?—and he’d brought the lass into the town with him, for a treat.”

“Oh!” Rachel was enchanted. “And was she beautiful and gracious as they say?”

Jamie frowned, considering.

“Well, no,” he said. “But she’d a terrible grippe at the time, and no doubt would have looked much improved without the red nose. Gracious? Well, I wouldna say so, really. She snatched a bridie right out of my hand and ate it.”

“And how old were you both at the time?” I asked, seeing Rachel’s mouth sag in horror.

“Oh, six, maybe,” he said cheerfully. “Or seven. I doubt I should remember, save I kicked her in the shin when she stole my bridie, and she pulled my hair.”

Recovering somewhat from the shock, Rachel was pressing Jamie for further reminiscences, a pressure he was laughingly deflecting with jokes.

Of course, he had come prepared to this occasion; all over the grounds, there were stories being exchanged—humorous, admiring, longing—of the days before Culloden. Odd, that it should have been the defeat of Charles Stuart, and his ignominious flight, that made a her**ne of Flora MacDonald and united these Highland exiles in a way that they could never have achieved—let alone sustained—had he actually won.

It struck me suddenly that Charlie was likely still alive, quietly drinking himself to death in Rome. In any real way, though, he was long since dead to these people who had loved or hated him. The amber of time had sealed him forever in that one defining moment of his life—Bliadha Tearlach; “Charlie’s Year,” it meant, and even now, I heard people call it that.

It was Flora’s coming that was causing this flood of sentiment, of course. How strange for her, I thought, with a pang of sympathy—and for the first time, wondered what on earth I might say to her myself.

I had met famous people before—not the least of them the Bonnie Prince himself. But always before, I had met them when they—and I—were in the midst of their normal lives, not yet past the defining events that would make them famous, and thus still just people. Bar Louis—but then, he was a king. There are rules of etiquette for dealing with kings, since after all, no one ever does approach them as normal people. Not even when—

I snapped my own fan open, hot blood bursting through my face and body. I breathed deeply, trying not to fan quite as frantically as Rachel, but wanting to.

I had not once, in all the years since it happened, ever specifically recalled those two or three minutes of physical intimacy with Louis of France. Not deliberately, God knew, and not by accident, either.

Yet suddenly, the memory of it had touched me, as suddenly as a hand coming out of the crowd to seize my arm. Seize my arm, lift my skirts, and penetrate me in a way much more shockingly intrusive than the actual experience had been.

The air around me was suffused with the scent of roses, and I heard the creak of the dress cage as Louis’s weight pressed upon it, and heard his sigh of pleasure. The room was dark, lit by one candle; it flickered at the edge of vision, then was blotted out by the man between my—

“Christ, Claire! Are ye all right?” I hadn’t actually fallen down, thank God. I had reeled back against the wall of Hector Cameron’s mausoleum, and Jamie, seeing me go, had leapt forward to catch hold of me.

“Let go,” I said, breathless, but imperative. “Let go of me!”

He heard the note of terror in my voice, and slackened his grip, but couldn’t bring himself to let go altogether, lest I fall. With the energy of sheer panic, I pulled myself upright, out of his grasp.

I still smelled roses. Not the cloying scent of rose oil—fresh roses. Then I came to myself, and realized that I was standing next to a huge yellow brier rose, trained to climb over the white marble of the mausoleum.

Knowing that the roses were real was comforting, but I felt as though I stood still on the edge of a vast abyss, alone, separate from every other soul in the universe. Jamie was close enough to touch, and yet it was as though he stood an immeasurable distance away.

Then he touched me and spoke my name, insistently, and just as suddenly as it had opened, the gap between us closed. I nearly fell into his arms.

“What is it, a nighean?” he whispered, holding me against his chest. “What’s frightened ye?” His own heart was thumping under my ear; I’d scared him, too.

“Nothing,” I said, and an overwhelming wave of relief went over me, at the realization that I was safely in the present; Louis had gone back into the shadows, an unpleasant but harmless memory once more. The staggering sense of violation, of loss and grief and isolation, had receded, no more than a shadow on my mind. Best of all, Jamie was there; solid and physical and smelling of sweat and whisky and horses . . . and there. I hadn’t lost him.

Other people were clustering round, curious, solicitous. Rachel fanned me earnestly, and the breeze of it felt soothing; I was drenched with sweat, wisps of hair clinging damply to my neck.

“Quite all right,” I murmured, suddenly self-conscious. “Just a bit faint . . . hot day . . .”

A chorus of offers to fetch me wine, a glass of syllabub, lemon shrub, a burned feather, were all trumped by Jamie’s production of a flask of whisky from his sporran. It was the three-year-old stuff, from the sherry casks, and I felt a qualm as the scent of it reached me, remembering the night we had got drunk together after he had rescued me from Hodgepile and his men. God, was I about to be hurled back into that pit?

But I wasn’t. The whisky was merely hot and consoling, and I felt better with the first sip.

Flashback. I’d heard colleagues talk about it, arguing as to whether this was the same phenomenon as shell shock, and if it was, whether it truly existed, or should be dismissed as simply “nerves.”

I shuddered briefly, and took another sip. It most assuredly existed. I felt much better, but I had been shaken to the core, and my bones still felt watery. Beyond the faint echoes of the experience itself was a much more unsettling thought. It had happened once before, when Ute McGillivray attacked me. Was it likely to happen again?

“Shall I carry ye inside, Sassenach? Perhaps ye should lie down a bit.”

Jamie had shooed away the well-wishers, had a slave fetch me a stool, and was now hovering over me like an anxious bumblebee.

“No, I’m all right now,” I assured him. “Jamie . . .”

“Aye, lass?”

“You—when you—do you . . .”

I took a deep breath—and another sip of whisky—and tried again.

“Sometimes, I wake up during the night and see you—struggling—and I think it’s with Jack Randall. Is it a dream that you have?”

He stared down at me for a moment, face blank, but trouble moving in his eyes. He glanced from side to side, but we were quite alone now.

“Why?” he asked, low-voiced.

“I need to know.”

He took a breath, swallowed, and nodded.

“Aye. Sometimes it’s dreams. That’s . . . all right. I wake, and ken where I am, say a wee prayer, and . . . it’s all right. But now and then—” He shut his eyes for a moment, then opened them. “I am awake. And yet I am there, with Jack Randall.”

“Ah.” I sighed, feeling at once terribly sad for him, and at the same time somewhat reassured. “Then I’m not losing my mind.”

“Ye think so?” he said dryly. “Well, I’m that glad to hear it, Sassenach.”

He stood very close, the cloth of his kilt brushing my arm, so that I should have him for support, if I suddenly went faint again. He looked searchingly at me, to be sure that I wasn’t going to keel over, then touched my shoulder and with a brief “Sit still” went off.

Not far; just to the tables set up under the trees at the edge of the lawn. Ignoring the slaves arranging food for the barbecue, he leaned across a platter of boiled crayfish and picked up something from a tiny bowl. Then he was back, leaning down to take my hand. He rubbed his fingers together, and a pinch of salt sprinkled into my open palm.

“There,” he whispered. “Keep it by ye, Sassenach. Whoever it is, he’ll trouble ye no more.”

I closed my hand over the damp grains, feeling absurdly comforted. Trust a Highlander to know precisely what to do about a case of daylight haunting! Salt, they said, kept a ghost in its grave. And if Louis was still alive, the other man, whoever he had been, that pressing weight in the dark, was surely dead.

There was a sudden rush of excitement, as a call came from the river—the boat had been sighted. As one, the crowd drew itself up on tiptoe, breathless with anticipation.

I smiled, but felt the giddy contagion of it touch me nonetheless. Then the pipes began to skirl, and my throat at once was tight with unshed tears.

Jamie’s hand tightened on my shoulder, unconsciously, and I looked up to see him rub his knuckles hard across his upper lip, as he, too, turned toward the river.

I looked down, blinking to control myself, and as my vision cleared, I saw the grains of salt on the ground, carefully scattered before the gates of the mausoleum.

SHE WAS MUCH SMALLER than I’d thought. Famous people always are. Everyone—dressed in their best, and an absolute sea of tartan—pressed close, awed past courtesy. I caught a glimpse of the top of her head, dark hair dressed high with white roses, and then it disappeared behind the thronged backs of well-wishers.

Her husband, Allan, was visible. A stoutly handsome man with gray-streaked black hair tied neatly back, he was standing—I assumed—behind her, bowing and smiling, acknowledging the flood of Gaelic compliment and welcome.

Despite myself, I felt the urge to rush forward and stare, with everyone else. I held firm, though. I was standing with Jocasta on the terrace; Mrs. MacDonald would come to us.

Sure enough; Jamie and Duncan were pushing their way firmly through the crowd, forming a flying wedge with Jocasta’s black butler, Ulysses.

“That’s really her?” Brianna murmured at my shoulder, eyes fixed with interest on the seething multitude, from which the men had now extracted the guest of honor, escorting her from the dock, up the lawn, toward the terrace. “She’s smaller than I thought. Oh, it’s too bad Roger isn’t here—he’d just die to see her!” Roger was spending a month at the Presbyterian Academy at Charlotte, having his qualifications for ordination examined.

“He may get to see her another time,” I murmured back. “I hear they’ve bought a plantation near Barbecue Creek, by Mount Pleasant.” And they would stay in the colony for at least another year or two, but I didn’t say that out loud; so far as the people here knew, the MacDonalds had immigrated permanently.

But I had seen the tall memorial stone on Skye—where Flora MacDonald had been born, and would someday die, disillusioned with America.

It wasn’t the first time I’d met someone and known their fate, of course—but it was always unsettling. The crowd opened and she stepped out, small and pretty, laughing up at Jamie. He had a hand under her elbow, guiding her up onto the terrace, and made a gesture of introduction toward me.

She looked up, expectant, met my gaze dead on, and blinked, her smile momentarily fading. It was back in an instant, and she was bowing to me and I to her, but I did wonder what she had seen in my face?

But she turned at once to greet Jocasta, and introduce her grown daughters, Anne and Fanny, a son, a son-in-law, her husband—by the time she had accomplished the confusion of introduction, she was perfectly in command of herself, and greeted me with a charming, gentle smile.

“Mrs. Fraser! I am so much obliged to meet you at last. I have heard such stories of your kindness and skill, I confess I am in awe to be in your presence.”

It was said with so much warmth and sincerity—she seizing me by the hands—that I found myself responding, in spite of a cynical wonder as to who she’d been talking to about me. My reputation in Cross Creek and Campbelton was notorious, but not universally lauded, by any means.

“I had the honor of Dr. Fentiman’s acquaintance at the subscription ball held for us in Wilmington—so kind, so amazingly kind of everyone! We have been so well treated, since our arrival—and he was quite in raptures regarding your—”

I should have liked to hear what had enraptured Fentiman—our relations were still marked by a certain wariness, though we had reached a rapprochement—but at this point, her husband spoke in her ear, desiring her to come and meet Farquard Campbell and some other prominent gentlemen, and with a regretful grimace, she squeezed my hands and departed, the brilliant public smile back in place.

“Huh,” Bree remarked, sotto voce. “Lucky for her she’s still got most of her teeth.”

That was in fact exactly what I’d been thinking, and I laughed, converting it into a hasty coughing fit as I saw Jocasta’s head turn sharply toward us.

“So that’s her.” Young Ian had come up on my other side, and was watching the guest of honor with an expression of deep interest. He was dressed in kilt, waistcoat, and coat for the occasion, his brown hair done up in a proper queue, and he looked quite civilized, bar the tattoos that looped across his cheekbones and over the bridge of his nose.

“That’s her,” Jamie agreed. “Fionnaghal—the Fair One.” There was a surprising note of nostalgia in his voice, and I glanced at him in surprise.

“Well, it’s her proper name,” he said mildly. “Fionnaghal. It’s only the English call her Flora.”

“Did you have a crush on her when you were little, Da?” Brianna asked, laughing.

“A what?”

“A tendresse,” I said, batting my eyelashes delicately at him over my fan.

“Och, dinna be daft!” he said. “I was seven years old, for God’s sake!” Nonetheless, the tips of his ears had gone quite pink.

“I was in love when I was seven,” Ian remarked, rather dreamily. “Wi’ the cook. Did ye hear Ulysses say as she’s brought a looking glass, Uncle? Given to her by Prince Tearlach, with his arms upon the back. Ulysses put it in the parlor, wi’ two of the grooms to stand guard over it.”

Sure enough, those people who weren’t in the swirling crowd surrounding the MacDonalds were all pressing through the double doors into the house, forming a line of animated chatter down the hall to the parlor.

“Seaumais!”

Jocasta’s imperious voice put a stop to the teasing. Jamie gave Brianna an austere look, and went to join her. Duncan was detained in conversation with a small knot of prominent men—I recognized Neil Forbes, the lawyer, as well as Cornelius Harnett and Colonel Moore—and Ulysses was nowhere in sight—most likely dealing with the backstage logistics of a barbecue for two hundred people—thus leaving Jocasta temporarily marooned. Her hand on Jamie’s arm, she sailed off the terrace, heading for Allan MacDonald, who had become detached from his wife by the press of people round her, and was standing under a tree, looking vaguely affronted.

I watched them go across the lawn, amused by Jocasta’s sense of theatrics. Her body servant, Phaedre, was dutifully following—and could plainly have guided her mistress. That wouldn’t have had at all the same effect, though. The two of them together made heads turn—Jocasta tall and slender, graceful despite her age and striking with her white hair piled high and her blue silk gown, Jamie with his Viking height and crimson Fraser tartan, both with those bold MacKenzie bones and catlike grace.

“Colum and Dougal would be proud of their little sister,” I said, shaking my head.

“Oh, aye?” Ian spoke absently, not attending. He was still watching Flora MacDonald, now accepting a bunch of flowers from one of Farquard Campbell’s grandchildren, to general applause.

“Not jealous, are you, Mama?” Brianna teased, seeing me glance in the same direction.

“Certainly not,” I said with a certain amount of complacence. “After all, I have all my teeth, too.”

I HAD MISSED HIM in the initial crush, but Major MacDonald was among the revelers, looking very flash in a brilliantly scarlet uniform coat and a new hat, lavish with gold lace. He removed this object and bowed low to me, looking cheerful—no doubt because I was unaccompanied by livestock, Adso and the white sow being both safely on Fraser’s Ridge.

“Your servant, mum,” he said. “I saw that ye had a word with Miss Flora—so charming, is she not? And a canty, handsome woman, as well.”

“Indeed she is,” I agreed. “Do you know her, then?”

“Oh, aye,” he said, a look of profound satisfaction spreading across his weathered face. “I should not dare to the presumption of friendship—but believe I may stake a modest claim to acquaintancy. I accompanied Mrs. MacDonald and her family from Wilmington, and have had the great honor to assist in settling them in their present situation.”

“Did you really?” I gave him an interested eye. The Major wasn’t the type to be awed by celebrity. He was the type to appreciate its uses. So was Governor Martin, evidently.

The Major was watching Flora MacDonald now with a proprietary eye, noting with approval the way in which people clustered round her.

“She has most graciously agreed to speak today,” he told me, rocking back a little on his bootheels. “Where would be the best place, do you think, mum? From the terrace, as being the point of highest elevation? Or perhaps near the statue on the lawn, as being more central and allowing the crowd to surround her, thus increasing the chance of everyone hearing her remarks?”

“I think she’ll have a sunstroke, if you put her out on the lawn in this weather,” I said, tilting my own broad-brimmed straw hat to shade my nose. It was easily in the nineties, in terms both of temperature and humidity, and my thin petticoats clung soddenly to my lower limbs. “What sort of remarks is she going to make?”

“Just a brief address upon the subject of loyalty, mum,” he said blandly. “Ah, there is your husband, talking to Kingsburgh; if you’ll excuse me, mum?” Bowing, he straightened, put his hat back on, and strode down the lawn to join Jamie and Jocasta, who were still with Allan MacDonald—styled “Kingsburgh,” in the Scottish fashion, for the name of his estate on Skye.

Food was beginning to be brought out: tureens of powsowdie and hotchpotch—and an enormous tub of soup à la Reine, a clear compliment to the guest of honor—platters of fried fish, fried chicken, fried rabbit; venison collops in red wine, smoked sausages, Forfar bridies, inky-pinky, roast turkeys, pigeon pie; dishes of colcannon, stovies, turnip purry, roasted apples stuffed with dried pumpkin, squash, corn, mushroom pasties; gigantic baskets overflowing with fresh baps, rolls, and other breads . . . all this, I was well aware, merely as prelude to the barbecue whose succulent aroma was drifting through the air: a number of hogs, three or four beeves, two deer, and, the pièce de résistance, a wood bison, acquired God knew how or where.

A hum of pleasant anticipation rose around me, as people began metaphorically to loosen their belts, squaring up to the tables with a firm determination to do their duty in honor of the occasion.

Jamie was still stuck fast to Mrs. MacDonald, I saw; he was helping her to a dish of what looked from the distance to be broccoli salad. He looked up and saw me, beckoned me to join them—but I shook my head, gesturing with my fan toward the buffet tables, where the guests were setting to in the businesslike manner of grasshoppers in a barley field. I didn’t want to lose the opportunity of inquiring about Manfred McGillivray, before the stupor of satiety settled over the crowd.

I made my way purposefully into the fray, accepting tidbits offered to me by assorted servants and slaves, pausing to chat with any acquaintance I saw, particularly those from Hillsboro. Manfred had spent a great deal of time there, I knew, taking commissions for guns, delivering the finished products, and doing small jobs of repair. That was the most likely place for him to go, I thought. But no one I talked to had seen him, though most knew him.

“Nice lad,” one gentleman told me, pausing momentarily in his potations. “And sore missed, too. Besides Robin, there’s few gunsmiths closer than Virginia.”

I knew that, and knowing, wondered whether Jamie was having any luck in locating the muskets he needed. Perhaps Lord John’s smuggling connections would be necessary.

I accepted a small pie from a passing slave’s tray, and wandered on, munching and chatting. There was much talk about a series of fiery articles that had appeared recently in the Chronicle, the local newspaper, whose proprietor, one Fogarty Simms, was spoken of with considerable sympathy.

“A rare plucked ’un, is Simms,” said Mr. Goodwin, shaking his head. “But I doubt me he’ll stand. I spoke with him last week, and he told me he’s in some fear of his skin. There’ve been threats, aye?”

From the tone of the gathering, I assumed that Mr. Simms must be a Loyalist, and this appeared to be true, from the various accounts I was given. There was talk, apparently, of a rival paper setting up, this to support the Whiggish agenda, with its incautious talk of tyranny and the overthrow of the King. No one knew quite who was behind the new venture, but there was talk—and much indignation at the prospect—that a printer was to be brought down from the north, where folk were notably given to such perverse sentiments.

The general consensus was that such persons wanted their backsides kicked, to bring them to their senses.

I hadn’t sat down to eat formally, but after an hour of moving slowly through fields of champing jaws and wandering herds of hors d’oeuvre trays, I felt as though I’d sat through a French royal banquet—those occasions lasting so long that chamber pots were discreetly placed beneath the guests’ chairs, and where the occasional guest giving way and sliding beneath the table was discreetly ignored.

The present occasion was less formal, but not much less prolonged. After an hour’s preliminary eating, the barbecue was raised steaming from the pits near the stable, and brought to the lawns on wooden trestles, mounted on the shoulders of slaves. The sight of immense sides of beef, pork, venison, and buffalo, gleaming with oil and vinegar and surrounded by the smaller charred carcasses of hundreds of pigeons and quail, was greeted with applause by the guests, all by this time drenched with the sweat of their efforts, but nothing daunted.

Jocasta, seated by her guest, looked deeply gratified by the sound of her hospitality being so warmly accepted, and leaned toward Duncan, smiling, putting a hand on his arm as she said something to him. Duncan had left off looking nervous—the effect of a quart or two of beer, followed by most of a bottle of whisky—and seemed to be enjoying himself, too. He smiled broadly at Jocasta, then essayed a remark to Mrs. MacDonald, who laughed at whatever he said.

I had to admire her; she was besieged on all sides by people wanting a word, but she kept her poise admirably, being kind and gracious to everyone—though this meant sitting sometimes for ten minutes, a forkful of food suspended in air as she listened to some interminable story. At least she was in the shade—and Phaedre, dressed in white muslin, stood dutifully behind her with a huge fan made of palmetto fronds, making a breeze and keeping off the flies.

“Lemon shrub, ma’am?” A wilting slave, gleaming with sweat, offered me yet another tray, and I took a glass. I was dripping with perspiration, my legs aching and my throat dried with talking. At this point, I didn’t care what was in the glass, provided it was wet.

I changed my opinion instantly upon tasting it; it was lemon juice and barley water, and while it was wet, I was much more inclined to pour it down the neck of my gown than to drink it. I edged unobtrusively toward a laburnum bush, intending to pour the drink into it, but was forestalled by the appearance of Neil Forbes, who stepped out from behind it.

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