A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 5

   

“Kenny Lindsay,” Roger said matter-of-factly. “The Beardsleys said they’d met him. He’ll have stopped to share the news.”

“Mm. We’d better be careful, then; if they’re looking out for brigands, too, they might shoot at anything that moves.”

“Not tonight; it’s a party, remember? What were ye saying, though, about the Beardsley boys protecting Lizzie?”

“Oh.” Her toe stubbed against some hidden obstacle, and she clutched his arm to keep from falling. “Oof! Only that I wasn’t sure who they thought they were protecting her from.”

Roger tightened his grip on her arm in reflex.

“Whatever d’ye mean by that?”

“Just that if I were Manfred McGillivray, I’d take good care to be nice to Lizzie. Mama says the Beardsleys follow her around like dogs, but they don’t. They follow her like tame wolves.”

“I thought Ian said it wasn’t possible to tame wolves.”

“It isn’t,” she said tersely. “Come on, let’s hurry, before they smoor the fire.”

THE BIG LOG HOUSE was literally overflowing with people. Light spilled from the open door and glowed in the row of tiny arrow-slit windows that marched across the front of the house, and dark forms wove in and out of the bonfire’s light. The sounds of a fiddle came to them, thin and sweet through the dark, borne on the wind with the scent of roasting meat.

“I suppose Senga’s truly made her choice, then,” Roger said, taking her arm for the final steep descent to the crossroad. “Who d’ye bet it is? Ronnie Sinclair or the German lad?”

“Oh, a bet? What are the stakes? Woops!” She stumbled, tripping on a half-buried rock in the path, but Roger tightened his grip, keeping her upright.

“Loser sets the pantry to rights,” he suggested.

“Deal,” she said promptly. “I think she chose Heinrich.”

“Aye? Well, ye may be right,” he said, sounding amused. “But I have to tell you, it was five to three in favor of Ronnie, last I heard. Frau Ute’s a force to be reckoned with.”

“She is,” Brianna admitted. “And if it was Hilda or Inga, I’d say it was no contest. But Senga’s got her mother’s personality; nobody’s telling her what to do—not even Frau Ute.

“Where did they get ‘Senga,’ anyway?” she added. “There are lots of Ingas and Hildas over toward Salem, but I’ve never heard of another Senga.”

“Ah, well, ye wouldn’t—not in Salem. It’s not a German name, ken—it’s Scots.”

“Scots?” she said in astonishment.

“Oh, aye,” he said, the grin evident in his voice. “It’s Agnes, spelt backward. A girl named that is bound to be contrary, don’t ye think?”

“You’re kidding! Agnes, spelled backward?”

“I wouldna say it’s common, exactly, but I’ve certainly met one or two Sengas in Scotland.”

She laughed.

“Do the Scots do that with any other names?”

“Back-spelling?” He considered. “Well, I did go to school with a lass named Adnil, and there was a grocer’s lad who got in the messages for old ladies in the neighborhood—his name’s pronounced ‘Kirry,’ but it’s spelt ‘C-i-r-e.’”

She looked sharply at him, in case he was teasing, but he wasn’t. She shook her head.

“I think Mama’s right about Scots. So yours spelled backward would be—”

“Regor,” he confirmed. “Sounds like something from a Godzilla film, doesn’t it? A giant eel, maybe, or a beetle with death-ray eyes.” He sounded pleased at the notion.

“You thought about it, didn’t you?” she said, laughing. “Which would you rather be?”

“Well, when I was a kid, I thought the beetle with the death-ray eyes would be best,” he admitted. “Then I went to sea and started hauling up the occasional Moray eel in my net. Those are not the kind of thing ye’d want to meet in a dark alley, believe me.”

“More agile than Godzilla, at least,” she said, shuddering slightly at the recollection of the one Moray eel she’d met personally. A four-foot length of spring steel and rubber, fast as lightning and equipped with a mouthful of razors, it had come up from the hold of a fishing boat she’d watched being unloaded in a little port town called MacDuff.

She and Roger had been leaning on a low rock wall, idly watching the gulls hover in the wind, when a shout of alarm from the fishing boat just below had made them look down in time to see fishermen scrambling back from something on deck.

A dark sine wave had flashed through the silver wash of fish on deck, shot under the rail, and landed on the wet stones of the quay, where it had caused similar panic among the fishermen hosing down their gear, writhing and lashing about like a crazed high-tension cable until one rubber-booted man, gathering his self-possession, had rushed up and kicked it back into the water.

“Well, they’re no really bad sorts, eels,” Roger said judiciously, evidently recalling the same memory. “Ye canna blame them, after all; being dragged up from the bottom of the sea without warning—anyone would thrash about a bit.”

“So they would,” she said, thinking of themselves. She took his hand, threading her fingers between his, and found his firm, cold grip a comfort.

They were close enough now to catch snatches of laughter and talk, billowing up into the cold night with the smoke of the fire. There were children running loose; she saw two small forms dart through the legs of the crowd around the fire, black and thin-limbed as Halloween goblins.

That wasn’t Jem, surely? No, he was smaller, and surely Lizzie wouldn’t—

“Mej,” Roger said.

“What?”

“Jem, backward,” he explained. “I was just thinking it would be a lot of fun to see Godzilla films with him. Maybe he’d like to be the beetle with death-ray eyes. Be fun, aye?”

He sounded so wistful that a lump came to her throat, and she squeezed his hand hard, then swallowed.

“Tell him Godzilla stories,” she said firmly. “It’s make-believe anyway. I’ll draw him pictures.”

He laughed at that.

“Christ, you do, and they’ll be stoning ye for trafficking with the devil, Bree. Godzilla looks like something straight out of the Book of Revelation—or so I was told.”

“Who told you that?”

“Eigger.”

“Who . . . oh,” she said, going into mental reverse. “Reggie? Who’s Reggie?”

“The Reverend.” His great-uncle, his adoptive father. There was still a smile in his voice, but one tinged with nostalgia. “When we went to the monster films together of a Saturday. Eigger and Regor—and ye should have seen the looks on the faces of the Ladies’ Altar and Tea Society, when Mrs. Graham let them in without announcing them, and they came into the Reverend’s study to find us stamping round and roaring, kicking hell out of a Tokyo built of blocks and soup tins.”

She laughed, but felt tears prick at the backs of her eyes.

“I wish I’d known the Reverend,” she said, squeezing his hand.

“I wish ye had, too,” he said softly. “He would have liked ye so much, Bree.”

For the space of a few moments, while he talked, the dark forest and the flaming fire below had faded away; they were in Inverness, cozy in the Reverend’s study, with rain on the windows and the sound of traffic going by in the street. It happened so often when they talked like this, between themselves. Then some small thing would fracture the moment—now, it was a shout from the fire as people began to clap and sing—and the world of their own time vanished in an instant.

What if he were gone, she thought suddenly. Could I bring it back, all by myself?

A spasm of elemental panic gripped her, just for a moment, at the thought. Without Roger as her touchstone, with nothing but her own memories to serve as anchor to the future, that time would be lost. Would fade into hazy dreams, and be lost, leaving her no firm ground of reality to stand upon.

She took a deep breath of the cold night air, crisp with woodsmoke, and dug the balls of her feet hard into the ground as they walked, trying to feel solid.

“MamaMamaMAMA!” A small blob detached itself from the confusion round the fire and rocketed toward her, crashing into her knees with enough force to make her grab hold of Roger’s arm.

“Jem! There you are!” She scooped him up and buried her face in his hair, which smelled pleasantly of goats, hay, and spicy sausage. He was heavy, and more than solid.

Then Ute McGillivray turned and saw them. Her broad face was creased in a frown, but broke into a beam of delight at seeing them. People turned at her call of greeting, and they were engulfed at once by the crowd, everyone asking questions, expressing gratified surprise at their coming.

A few questions were asked about the Dutch family, but Kenny Lindsay had brought the news of the burning earlier; Brianna was glad of that. People clucked and shook their heads, but by now they had exhausted most of their horrified speculations, and were turning to other matters. The cold of the graves beneath the fir trees still lingered as a faint chill on her heart; she had no wish to make that experience real again by talking about it.

The newly engaged couple were seated together on a pair of upturned buckets, holding hands, faces blissful in the glow of the bonfire.

“I win,” Brianna said, smiling at sight of them. “Don’t they look happy?”

“They do,” Roger agreed. “I doubt Ronnie Sinclair is. Is he here?” He glanced round, and so did she, but the cooper was nowhere in sight.

“Wait—he’s in his shop,” she said, putting a hand on Roger’s wrist and nodding toward the small building on the opposite side of the road. There were no windows on this side of the cooper’s shop, but a faint glow showed round the edge of the closed door.

Roger glanced from the darkened shop to the convivial crowd round the fire; a good many of Ute’s relations had ridden over with the lucky bridegroom and his friends from Salem, bringing with them an immense barrel of black beer, which was adding to the festivities. The air was yeasty with the tang of hops.

By contrast, the cooper’s shop had a desolate, glowering sort of air about it. She wondered whether anyone around the fire had yet missed Ronnie Sinclair.

“I’ll go and have a bit of a blether with him, aye?” Roger touched her back in brief affection. “He could maybe use a sympathetic ear.”

“That and a stiff drink?” She nodded toward the house, where Robin McGillivray was visible through the open door, pouring what she assumed to be whisky for a select circle of friends.

“I imagine he will have managed that for himself,” Roger replied dryly. He left her, making his way around the convivial group by the fire. He disappeared in the dark, but then she saw the door of the cooper’s shop open, and Roger silhouetted briefly against the glow from within, his tall form blocking the light before vanishing inside.

“Wanna drink, Mama!” Jemmy was wriggling like a tadpole, trying to get down. She set him on the ground, and he was off like a shot, nearly upsetting a stout lady with a platter of corn fritters.

The aroma of the steaming fritters reminded her that she hadn’t had any supper, and she made her way after Jemmy to the table of food, where Lizzie, in her role as almost-daughter-of-the-house, helped her importantly to sauerkraut, sausages, smoked eggs, and something involving corn and squash.

“Where’s your sweetheart, Lizzie?” she asked, teasing. “Shouldn’t you be spooning with him?”

“Oh, him?” Lizzie looked like someone recalling a thing of vague general interest, but no immediate importance. “Manfred, ye mean? He’s . . . ower there.” She squinted against the glow of the fire, then pointed with her serving spoon. Manfred McGillivray, her own betrothed, was with three or four other young men, all with arms linked, swaying to and fro as they sang something in German. They appeared to have trouble remembering the words, as each verse dissolved into giggles and shoving accusations.

“Here, Schätzchen—that’s ‘sweetheart,’ ken, in German,” Lizzie explained, leaning down to give Jemmy a bite of sausage. He snapped the tidbit up like a starving seal and chewed industriously, then mumbled, “Wagga gink,” and wandered off into the night.

“Jem!” Brianna made to go after him, but was hampered by an oncoming crowd headed for the table.

“Ah, dinna fash yourself about him,” Lizzie assured her. “Everyone kens who he is; he’ll come to nay harm.”

She might still have gone after him, save that she saw a small blond head pop up beside Jem’s. Germain, Jem’s bosom friend. Germain was two years older, and had a great deal more worldly knowledge than the average five-year-old, thanks in great part to his father’s tutelage. She did hope he wasn’t picking pockets in the crowd, and made a mental note to frisk him for contraband, later.

Germain had Jem firmly by the hand, so she allowed herself to be persuaded to sit down with Lizzie, Inga, and Hilda, on the bales of straw that had been placed a little way from the fire.

“Und where’s your sweetheart, then?” teased Hilda. “Yon big bonny black devil?”

“Oh, him?” Brianna said, mimicking Lizzie, and they all broke into rather unladylike roars of laughter; evidently the beer had been making the rounds for some time.

“He’s comforting Ronnie,” she said, with a nod toward the darkened cooper’s shop. “Is your mother upset about Senga’s choice?”

“Och, aye,” said Inga, rolling her eyes with great expressiveness. “Should ha’ heard them at it, her and Senga. Hammer and tongs, hammer and tongs. Da went out to the fishing, and stayed awa’ three days.”

Brianna ducked her head to hide a grin. Robin McGillivray liked a peaceful life, something he was never likely to enjoy in the company of his wife and daughters.

“Ah, well,” Hilda said philosophically, leaning back a little to ease the strain of her first pregnancy, which was well advanced. “She couldna really say so much, meine Mutter. Heinrich’s her own cousin’s son, after all. Even if he is poor.”

“But young,” Inga added practically. “Da says Heinrich will have time to get rich.” Ronnie Sinclair wasn’t precisely rich—and he was thirty years older than Senga. On the other hand, he did own both his cooper’s shop and half of the house in which he and the McGillivrays lived. And Ute, having shepherded both her elder daughters to solid marriages with men of property, had obviously seen the advantages of a match between Senga and Ronnie.

“I can see that it might be a little awkward,” Brianna said tactfully. “Ronnie going on living with your family, after—” She nodded at the betrothed couple, who were feeding each other bits of cake.

“Hoo!” Hilda exclaimed, rolling her eyes. “I’m that glad not to be living here!”

Inga nodded vigorous agreement, but added, “Well, but Mutti isna the one to be greetin’ over spilt milk. She’s got an eye out for a wife for Ronnie. Just watch her.” She nodded toward the food table, where Ute was chatting and smiling with a group of German women.

“Who d’ye think it is she has picked out?” Inga asked her sister, eyes narrowed as she watched her mother operate. “That wee Gretchen? Or your Archie’s cousin, maybe? The walleyed one—Seona?”

Hilda, married to a Scot from Surry County, shook her head at this.

“She’ll want a German girl,” she objected. “For she’ll be thinkin’ of what will happen if Ronnie dies, and the wife marries again. If it’s a German girl, chances are Mama can bully her into a new marriage with one of her nephews or cousins—keep the property in the family, aye?”

Brianna listened with fascination as the girls discussed the situation, with perfect matter-of-factness—and wondered whether Ronnie Sinclair had the slightest idea that his fate was being decided in this pragmatic fashion. But he’d been living with the McGillivrays for more than a year, she reasoned; he must have some idea of Ute’s methods.

Thanking God silently that she was not herself compelled to live in the same house with the redoubtable Frau McGillivray, she looked round for Lizzie, feeling a pang of sympathy for her erstwhile bondmaid. Lizzie would be living with Ute, once her marriage to Manfred took place next year.

Hearing the name “Wemyss,” she returned to the conversation at hand, only to discover that the girls were not discussing Lizzie, but rather her father.

“Auntie Gertrud,” declared Hilda, and belched softly, fist to her mouth. “She’s a widow-woman herself; she’d be the best for him.”

“Auntie Gertrud would have poor wee Mr. Wemyss dead in a year,” Inga objected, laughing. “She’s twice his size. If she didna kill him from exhaustion, she’d roll over in her sleep and squash him flat.”

Hilda clapped both hands to her mouth, but less in shock than to stifle her giggles. Brianna thought she’d had her share of beer, too; her cap was awry and her pale face looked flushed, even by firelight.

“Aye, weel, I think he’s no much bothered at the thought. See him?” Hilda nodded past the beer-drinkers, and Brianna had no trouble picking out Mr. Wemyss’s head, his hair pale and flyaway as his daughter’s. He was in animated conversation with a stout woman in apron and cap, who nudged him intimately in the ribs, laughing.

As she watched, though, Ute McGillivray made her way toward them, followed by a tall blond woman, who hesitated a little, hands folded under her apron.

“Oh, who’s that?” Inga craned her neck like a goose, and her sister elbowed her, scandalized.

“Lass das, du alte Ziege! Mutti’s looking this way!”

Lizzie had half-risen to her knees, peering.

“Who—?” she said, sounding like an owl. Her attention was momentarily distracted by Manfred, who dropped beside her in the straw, grinning amiably.

“How is it, then, Herzchen?” he said, putting an arm round her waist and trying to kiss her.

“Who’s that, Freddie?” she said, adroitly eluding his embrace and pointing discreetly toward the blond woman, who was smiling shyly as Frau Ute introduced her to Mr. Wemyss.

Manfred blinked, swaying a little on his knees, but answered readily enough.

“Oh. That’s Fraulein Berrisch. Pastor Berrisch’s sister.”

Inga and Hilda made little cooing sounds of interest; Lizzie frowned a little, but then relaxed, seeing her father tilt back his head to address the newcomer; Fraulein Berrisch was nearly as tall as Brianna herself.

Well, that explains why she’s still a Fraulein, Brianna thought with sympathy. The woman’s hair was streaked with gray, where it showed beneath her cap, and she had a rather plain face, though her eyes held a calm sweetness.

“Oh, a Protestant, then,” Lizzie said, in a dismissive tone that made it clear that the Fraulein could hardly be considered as a potential mate for her father.

“Aye, but she’s a nice woman, for a’ that. Come and dance, Elizabeth.” Manfred had clearly lost any interest in Mr. Wemyss and the Fraulein; he pulled Lizzie, protesting, to her feet, and propelled her toward the circle of dancers. She went reluctantly, but Brianna saw that by the time they had reached the dance, Lizzie was laughing at something Manfred had said, and he was smiling down at her, the firelight glowing on the handsome planes of his face. They were a nice-looking couple, she thought, better-matched in appearance than Senga and her Heinrich—who was tall, but spindly and rather hatchet-faced.

Inga and Hilda had begun arguing with each other in German, allowing Brianna to devote herself to the wholehearted consumption of the excellent supper. Hungry as she was, she would have enjoyed almost anything, but the tart, crisp sauerkraut and the sausages, bursting with juice and spices, were a rare treat.

It was only as she wiped the last of the juice and grease from her wooden plate with a chunk of corn bread that she cast a glance at the cooper’s shop, thinking guiltily that she ought perhaps to have saved some for Roger. He was so kind, taking thought for poor Ronnie’s feelings. She felt a rush of pride and affection for him. Maybe she should go over there and rescue him.

She had put down her plate and was sorting out her skirts and petticoats, in preparation for putting this plan into action, when she was forestalled by a pair of small figures who came weaving out of the darkness.

“Jem?” she said, startled. “What’s the matter?”

The flames gleamed on Jemmy’s hair like freshly minted copper, but the face under it was white, and his eyes enormous dark pools, fixed and staring.

“Jemmy!”

He turned a blank face to her, said “Mama?” in a small, uncertain voice, then sat down suddenly, his legs collapsing under him like rubber bands.

She was dimly aware of Germain, swaying like a sapling in a high breeze, but had no attention to spare for him. She seized Jemmy, lifting his head and shaking him a little.

“Jemmy! Wake up! What’s wrong?”

“The wee laddie’s dead drunk, a nighean,” said a voice above her, sounding amused. “Whatever have ye been givin’ him?” Robin McGillivray, rather obviously a little the worse for wear himself, leaned over and prodded Jemmy gently, eliciting nothing more than a soft gurgle. He picked up one of Jemmy’s arms, then let it go; it fell, boneless as a strand of boiled spaghetti.

“I didn’t give him anything,” she replied, panic giving way to a rising annoyance, as she saw that Jemmy was in fact merely asleep, his small chest rising and falling with a reassuring rhythm. “Germain!”

Germain had subsided into a small heap, and was singing “Alouette” to himself in a dreamy sort of way. Brianna had taught it to him; it was his favorite song.

“Germain! What did you give Jemmy to drink?”

“. . . j’te plumerai la tete. . .”

“Germain!” She grabbed him by the arm, and he ceased singing, looking surprised to see her.

“What did you give Jemmy, Germain?”

“He was thirsty, m’dame,” Germain said, with a smile of surpassing sweetness. “He wanted a drink.” Then his eyes rolled back in his head, and he keeled over backward, limp as a dead fish.

“Oh, Jesus Christ on a piece of toast!”

Inga and Hilda looked shocked, but she was in no mood to worry about their sensibilities.

“Where the bloody hell is Marsali?”

“She’s no here,” Inga said, bending forward to inspect Germain. “She stopped at hame wi’ the wee maedchen. Fergus is . . .” She straightened up, looking vaguely round. “Well, I saw him a while ago.”

“What’s the trouble?” The hoarse voice at her shoulder surprised her, and she turned to find Roger looking quizzical, his face relaxed from its usual sternness.

“Your son is a drunkard,” she informed him. Then she caught a whiff of Roger’s breath. “Following in his father’s footsteps, I see,” she added coldly.

Disregarding this, Roger sat down beside her and gathered Jemmy up into his lap. Holding the little boy propped against his knees, he patted Jemmy’s cheek, gently but insistently.

“Hallo there, Mej,” he said softly. “Hallo, then. Ye’re all right, are ye?”

Like magic, Jemmy’s eyelids floated up. He smiled dreamily at Roger.

“Hallo, Daddy.” Still smiling beatifically, his eyes closed and he relaxed into utter limpness, cheek flattened against his father’s knee.

“He’s all right,” Roger told her.

“Well, good,” she said, not particularly mollified. “What do you think they’ve been drinking? Beer?”

Roger leaned forward and sniffed at his offspring’s red-stained lips.

“Cherry Bounce, at a guess. There’s a vat of it, round by the barn.”

“Holy God!” She’d never drunk Cherry Bounce, but Mrs. Bug had told her how to make it: “Tak’ the juice of a bushel o’ cherries, dissolve twenty-four pound o’ sugar ower it, then ye put it into a forty-gallon cask and fill it up wi’ whisky.”

“He’s all right.” Roger patted her arm. “Is that Germain over there?”

“It is.” She leaned over to check, but Germain was peacefully asleep, also smiling. “That Cherry Bounce must be good stuff.”

Roger laughed.

“It’s terrible. Like industrial-strength cough syrup. I will say it makes ye very cheerful, though.”

“Have you been drinking it?” She eyed him narrowly, but his lips appeared to be their usual color.

“Of course not.” He leaned over and kissed her, to prove it. “Surely ye dinna think a Scotsman like Ronnie would deal wi’ disappointment by drinking Cherry Bounce? When there’s decent whisky to hand?”

“True,” she said. She glanced at the cooperage. The faint glow from the hearth fire had faded and the outline of the door had disappeared, leaving the building no more than a faint rectangle of black against the darker mass of the forest beyond. “How is Ronnie dealing with it?” She glanced round, but Inga and Hilda had taken themselves off to help Frau Ute; all of them were clustered round the food table, clearing things away.

“Oh, he’s all right, Ronnie.” Roger moved Jemmy off his lap, placing him gently on his side in the straw near Germain. “He wasna in love with Senga, after all. He’s suffering from sexual frustration, not a broken heart.”

“Oh, well, if that’s all,” she said dryly. “He won’t have to suffer much longer; I’m informed that Frau Ute has the matter well in hand.”

“Aye, she’s told him she’ll find him a wife. He’s what ye might call philosophical about the matter. Though still reeking wi’ lust,” he added, wrinkling his nose.

“Ew. Do you want anything to eat?” She glanced at the little boys, getting her feet under her. “I’d better get you something before Ute and the girls clear it all away.”

Roger yawned, suddenly and immensely.

“No, I’m all right.” He blinked, smiling sleepily at her. “I’ll go tell Fergus where Germain is, maybe snatch a bite on the way.” He patted her shoulder, then stood up, swaying only a little, and moved off toward the fire.

She checked the boys again; both were breathing deeply and regularly, dead to the world. With a sigh, she bundled them close together, piling up the straw around them, and covered them with her cloak. It was growing colder, but winter had gone; there was no feel of frost in the air.

The party was still going on, but it had shifted to a lower gear. The dancing had stopped and the crowd broken up into smaller groups, men gathered in a circle near the fire, lighting their pipes, the younger men disappeared somewhere. All around her, families were settling in for the night, making nests for themselves in the hay. Some were in the house, more in the barn; she could hear the sound of a guitar from somewhere behind the house, and a single voice, singing something slow and wistful. It made her yearn suddenly for the sound of Roger’s voice as it had been, rich and tender.

Thinking of that, though, she realized something; his voice had been much better when he came back from consoling Ronnie. Still husky and with only a shadow of its former resonance—but it had come easily, without that choked note in it. Perhaps alcohol relaxed the vocal cords?

More likely, she thought, it simply relaxed Roger; removed some of his inhibitions about the way he sounded. That was worth knowing. Her mother had opined that his voice would improve, if he would stretch it, work with it, but he was shy of using it, wary of pain—whether from the actual sensation of speaking, or from the contrast with the way he had sounded before.

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