A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 50

   

“What is it, then, Auntie?” Jamie was still holding her hand, one big thumb gently stroking the back of it, over and over, in the soothing rhythm I’d seen him use on skittish animals. It was less effective on his aunt than on the average horse or dog, though.

“It was him. He’s here!”

“Who’s here, Auntie?”

“I don’t know!” Her eyes rolled desperately to and fro, as though in a vain attempt to see through not only darkness, but walls, as well.

Jamie raised his brows at me, but he could see as well as I that she wasn’t raving, incoherent as she sounded. She realized what she sounded like; I could see the effort in her face as she pulled herself together.

“He’s come for the gold,” she said, lowering her voice. “The Frenchman’s gold.”

“Oh, aye?” Jamie said cautiously. He darted a glance at me, one eyebrow raised, but I shook my head. She wasn’t having hallucinations.

Jocasta sighed with impatience and shook her head, then stopped abruptly, with a muffled “Och!” of pain, putting both hands to her head as though to keep it on her shoulders.

She breathed deeply for a moment or two, her lips pressed tight together. Then she slowly lowered her hands.

“It started last night,” she said. “The pain in my eye.”

She’d waked in the night to a throbbing in her eye, a dull pain that spread slowly to the side of her head.

“It’s come before, ken,” she explained. She had pushed herself up to a sitting position now, and was beginning to look a little better, though she still held the warm cloth to her eye. “It began when I started to lose my sight. Sometimes it would be one eye, sometimes both. But I kent what was coming.”

But Jocasta MacKenzie Cameron Innes was not a woman to allow mere bodily indisposition to interfere with her plans, let alone interrupt what promised to be the most scintillating social affair in Cross Creek’s history.

“I was that disgusted,” she said. “And here Miss Flora MacDonald coming!”

But the arrangements had all been made; the barbecued carcasses were roasting in their pits, hogsheads of ale and beer stood ready by the stables, and the air was full of the fragrance of hot bread and beans from the cookhouse. The slaves were well-trained, and she had full faith that Ulysses would manage everything. All she must do, she’d thought, was to stay on her feet.

“I didna want to take opium or laudanum,” she explained. “Or I’d fall asleep for sure. So I made do wi’ the whisky.”

She was a tall woman, and thoroughly accustomed to an intake of liquor that would have felled a modern man. By the time the MacDonalds arrived, she’d had the better part of a bottle—but the pain was getting worse.

“And then my eye began to water so fierce, everyone would ha’ seen something was wrong, and I didna want that. So I came into my sitting room; I’d taken care to put a wee bottle of laudanum in my workbasket, in case the whisky should be not enough.

“Folk were swarming thick as lice outside, trying to catch a glimpse or a word with Miss MacDonald, but the sitting room was deserted, so far as I could tell, what wi’ my head pounding and my eye fit to explode.” She said this last quite casually, but I saw Jamie flinch, the memory of what I’d done with the needle obviously still fresh. He swallowed and wiped his knuckles hard across his mouth.

Jocasta had quickly abstracted the bottle of laudanum, swallowed a few gulps, and then sat for a moment, waiting for it to take effect.

“I dinna ken if ye’ve ever had the stuff, Nephew, but it gives ye an odd feeling, as though ye might be starting to dissolve at the edges. Take a drop too much, and ye begin to see things that aren’t there—blind or not—and hear them, too.”

Between the effects of laudanum and liquor and the noise of the crowd outside, she hadn’t noticed footsteps, and when the voice spoke near her, she’d thought for a moment that it was a hallucination.

“‘So here ye are, lass,’ he said,” she quoted, and her face, already pale, blanched further at the memory. “‘Remember me, do ye?’”

“I take it ye did, Aunt?” Jamie asked dryly.

“I did,” she replied just as dryly. “I’d heard that voice twice before. Once at the Gathering where your daughter was wed—and once more than twenty years ago, in an inn near Coigach, in Scotland.”

She lowered the wet cloth from her face and put it unerringly back into the bowl of warm water. Her eyes were red and swollen, raw against the pale skin, and looking terribly vulnerable in their blindness—but she had command of herself once more.

“Aye, I did ken him,” she repeated.

She had recognized the voice at once as one known—but for a moment, could not place it. Then realization had struck her, and she had clutched the arm of her chair for support.

“Who are ye?” she’d demanded, with what force she could summon. Her heart was pounding in time to the throbbing in her head and eye, and her senses swimming in whisky and laudanum. Perhaps it was the laudanum that seemed to transform the sound of the crowd outside into the sound of a nearby sea, the noise of a slave’s footsteps in the hall to the thump of the landlord’s clogs on the stairs of the inn.

“I was there. Truly there.” Despite the sweat that still ran down her face, I saw gooseflesh pebble the pale skin of her shoulders. “In the inn at Coigach. I smelt the sea, and I heard the men—Hector and Dougal—I could hear them! Arguing together, somewhere behind me. And the man wi’ the mask—I could see him,” she said, and a ripple went up the back of my own neck as she turned her blind eyes toward me. She spoke with such conviction that for an instant, it seemed she did see.

“Standing at the foot of the stair, just as he’d been twenty-five years ago, a knife in his hand and his eyes upon me through the holes in his mask.”

And, “Ye ken well enough who I am, lass,” he’d said, and she had seemed to see his smile, though dimly she had known she only heard it in his voice; she’d never seen his face, even when she had her sight.

She was sitting up, half doubled over, arms crossed over her breast as though in self-defense and her white hair wild and tangled down her back.

“He’s come back,” she said, and shook with a sudden convulsive shudder. “He’s come for the gold—and when he finds it, he will kill me.”

Jamie laid a hand on her arm, in an attempt to calm her.

“No one will kill ye while I’m here, Aunt,” he said. “So this man came to ye in your sitting room, and ye kent him from his voice. What else did he say to ye?”

She was still shivering, but not so badly. I thought it was as much reaction to massive amounts of laudanum and whisky as from fear.

She shook her head in the effort of recollection.

“He said—he said he had come to take the gold to its rightful owner. That we’d held it in trust, and while he didna grudge me what we’d spent of it, Hector and me—it wasna mine, had never been mine. I should tell him where it was, and he would see to the rest. And then he put his hand on me.” She ceased clutching herself, and held out one arm toward Jamie. “On my wrist. D’ye see the marks there? D’ye see them, Nephew?” She sounded anxious, and it occurred to me suddenly that she might doubt the existence of the visitor herself.

“Aye, Auntie,” Jamie said softly, touching her wrist. “There are marks.”

There were; three purplish smudges, small ovals where fingers had gripped.

“He squeezed, and then twisted my wrist so hard I thought it had snapped. Then he let go, but he didna step back. He stayed over me, and I could feel the heat of his breath and the stink of tobacco on my face.”

I had hold of her other wrist, feeling the pulse beat there. It was strong and rapid, but every once in a while would skip a beat. Hardly surprising. I did wonder how often she took laudanum—and how much.

“So I reached down into my workbasket, took my wee knife from its sheath, and went for his balls,” she concluded.

Taken by surprise, Jamie laughed.

“Did ye get him?”

“Yes, she did,” I said, before Jocasta could answer. “I saw dried blood on the knife.”

“Well, that will teach him to terrorize a helpless blind woman, won’t it?” Jamie patted her hand. “Ye did well, Auntie. Did he go, then?”

“He did.” The recounting of her success had steadied her a lot; she pulled her hand from my grip, in order to push herself up straighter against the pillows. She pulled away the towel still draped around her neck, and dropped it on the floor with a brief grimace of distaste.

Seeing that she was plainly feeling better, Jamie glanced at me, then rose to his feet.

“I’ll go and see is anyone limping about the place, then.” At the door, he paused, though, turning back to Jocasta.

“Auntie. Ye said ye’d met this fellow twice before? At the inn in Coigach where the men brought the gold ashore—and at the Gathering four years ago?”

She nodded, brushing back the damp hair from her face.

“I did. ’Twas on the last day. He came into my tent, while I was alone. I kent someone was there, though he didna speak at first, and I asked who was it? He gave a bit of a laugh, then, and said, ‘It’s true what they said, then—you’re blind entirely?’”

She had stood up, facing the invisible visitor, recognizing the voice, but not quite knowing yet why.

“‘So ye dinna ken me, Mrs. Cameron? I was a friend to your husband—though it’s been a good many years since last we met. On the coast of Scotland—on a moonlicht nicht.’”

She licked dry lips at the memory.

“So then it came to me, all on the sudden. And I said, ‘Blind I may be, but I ken ye well, sir. What d’ye want?’ But he was gone. And the next instant, I heard Phaedre and Ulysses talking as they came toward the tent; he’d seen them, and fled away. I asked them, but they’d been ta’en up wi’ their arguing, and hadna seen him leave. I kept someone by me all the time, then, until we left—and he didna come near me again. Until now.”

Jamie frowned and rubbed a knuckle slowly down the long, straight bridge of his nose.

“Why did ye not tell me then?”

A trace of humor touched her ravaged face, and she wrapped her fingers round her injured wrist.

“I thought I was imagining things.”

PHAEDRE HAD FOUND the bottle of laudanum where Jocasta had dropped it, under her chair in the sitting room. Likewise, a trail of tiny blood spots that I had missed in my hurry. These disappeared before reaching the door, though; whatever wound Jocasta had inflicted on the intruder had been minor.

Duncan, summoned discreetly, had hurried in to comfort Jocasta—only to be sent directly out again, with instructions to see to the guests; neither injury nor illness was going to mar such an occasion!

Ulysses met with a slightly more cordial reception. In fact, Jocasta sent for him. Peering into her room to check on her, I found him sitting by the bed, holding his mistress’s hand, with such an expression of gentleness on his usually impassive face that I was quite moved by it, and stepped quietly back into the hall, not to disturb them. He saw me, though, and nodded.

They were talking in low voices, his head in its stiff white wig bending toward hers. He seemed to be arguing with her, in a most respectful fashion; she shook her head, and gave a small cry of pain. His hand tightened on hers, and I saw that he had taken off his white gloves; her hand lay long and frail, pallid in his powerful dark grasp.

She breathed deeply, steadying herself. Then she said something definite, squeezed his hand, and lay back. He rose, and stood for a moment beside the bed, looking down at her. Then he drew himself up, and taking his gloves from his pocket, came out into the hall.

“If you will fetch your husband, Mrs. Fraser?” he said, low-voiced. “My mistress wishes me to tell him something.”

THE PARTY WAS STILL IN full swing, but had shifted to a lower, digestive sort of gear. People greeted Jamie or me as we followed Ulysses into the house, but no one stopped us.

He led us downstairs to his butler’s pantry, a tiny room that lay off the winter kitchen, its shelves crammed with silver ornaments, bottles of polish, vinegar, blacking, and bluing, a housewife with needles, pins, and threads, small tools for mending, and what looked like a substantial private stock of brandy, whisky, and assorted cordials.

He removed these from their shelf, and reaching back into the empty space where they had stood, pressed upon the wood of the wall with both white-gloved hands. Something clicked, and a small panel slid aside with a soft rasping sound.

He stood aside, silently inviting Jamie to look. Jamie raised one eyebrow and leaned forward, peering into the recess. It was dark and shadowy in the butler’s pantry, with only a dim light filtering in from the high basement windows that ran around the top of the kitchen walls.

“It’s empty,” he said.

“Yes, sir. It should not be.” Ulysses’s voice was low and respectful, but firm.

“What was there?” I asked, glancing out of the pantry to be sure we were not overheard. The kitchen looked as though a bomb had gone off in it, but only a scullion was there, a half-witted boy who was washing pots, singing softly to himself.

“Part of an ingot of gold,” Ulysses replied softly.

The French gold Hector Cameron had brought away from Scotland, ten thousand pounds in bullion, cast in ingots and marked with the royal fleur-de-lis, was the foundation of River Run’s wealth. But it would not do, of course, for that fact to be known. First Hector, and then, after Hector’s death, Ulysses, had taken one of the gold bars and scraped bits of the soft yellow metal into a small, anonymous heap. This could then be taken to the river warehouses—or for additional safety, sometimes as far as the coastal towns of Edenton, Wilmington, or New Bern—and there carefully changed, in small amounts that would cause no comment, into cash or warehouse certificates, which could safely be used anywhere.

“There was about half of the ingot left,” Ulysses said, nodding toward the cavity in the wall. “I found it gone a few months ago. Since then, of course, I have contrived a new hiding place.”

Jamie looked into the empty cavity, then turned to Ulysses.

“The rest?”

“Safe enough, last time I checked, sir.” The bulk of the gold was concealed inside Hector Cameron’s mausoleum, hidden in a coffin and guarded, presumably, by his spirit. One or two of the slaves besides Ulysses might know about it, but the very lively fear of ghosts was enough to keep everyone away. I remembered the line of salt spread on the ground in front of the mausoleum, and shivered a little, in spite of the stifling heat in the basement.

“I could not, of course, make shift to look today,” the butler added.

“No, of course not. Duncan knows?” Jamie nodded toward the recess, and Ulysses nodded.

“The thief might have been anyone. So many people come to this house. . . .” The butler’s massive shoulders moved in a small shrug. “But now that this man from the sea has come again—it puts a different face upon the matter, does it not, sir?”

“Aye, it does.” Jamie contemplated the matter for a moment, tapping two fingers softly against his leg.

“Well, then. Ye’ll need to stay for a bit, Sassenach, will ye not? To look after my aunt’s eye?”

I nodded. Provided no infection resulted from my crude intervention, there was little or nothing I could do for the eye itself. But it should be watched, kept clean and irrigated, until I could be sure it was healed.

“We’ll stay, then, for a bit,” he said, turning to Ulysses. “I’ll send the Bugs back to the Ridge, to mind things and see to the haying. We’ll stay, and watch.”

THE HOUSE WAS FULL of guests, but I slept in Jocasta’s dressing room, so that I might keep an eye on her. The easing of pressure in her eye had relieved the excruciating pain, and she had fallen soundly asleep, her vital signs reassuring enough that I felt I could sleep, too.

Knowing I had a patient, though, I slept lightly, waking at intervals to tiptoe into her room. Duncan was sleeping on a pallet at the foot of her bed, dead to the world from the exhaustions of the day. I could hear his heavy breathing, as I lit a taper from the hearth and came to stand by the bed.

Jocasta was still soundly asleep, lying on her back, arms crossed gracefully over the coverlet and her head thrown back, sternly long-nosed and aristocratic as the tomb figures in the chapel of St. Denys. All she wanted was a crown, and a small dog of some kind crouched at her feet.

I smiled at the thought, thinking as I did how odd it was: Jamie slept in exactly that fashion, lying flat on his back, hands crossed, straight as an arrow. Brianna didn’t; she was a wild sleeper, and had been from a child. Like me.

The thought gave me a small, unexpected feeling of pleasure. I knew I had given her some parts of me, of course, but she resembled Jamie so strongly, it was always something of a surprise to notice one.

I blew out the taper, but didn’t at once return to bed. I had taken Phaedre’s cot in the dressing room, but it was a hot, airless little space. The hot day and the consumption of alcohol had left me cotton-mouthed, with a vague headache; I picked up the carafe from Jocasta’s bedside, but it was empty.

No need to relight the taper; one of the sconces in the hallway was still burning, and a dim glow outlined the door. I pushed it open quietly and looked out. The corridor was lined with bodies—servants sleeping by the doors of the bedrooms—and the air throbbed gently with the snoring and heavy breathing of a great many people sunk in slumber of varying degrees.

At the end of the corridor, though, one pale figure stood upright, looking out through the tall casement window toward the river.

She must have heard me, but didn’t turn around. I came to stand beside her, looking out. Phaedre was undressed to her shift, her hair free of its cloth and falling in a soft thick mass around her shoulders. Rare for a slave to have such hair, I thought; most women kept their hair very short under turban or headcloth, lacking both time and tools for dressing it. But Phaedre was a body servant; she would have some leisure—and a comb, at least.

“Would you like your bed back?” I asked, low-voiced. “I’ll be up for a while—and can sleep on the divan.”

She glanced at me, and shook her head.

“Oh, no, ma’am,” she said softly. “Thankee kindly; I ain’t sleepy.” She saw the carafe I carried, and reached for it. “I fetch you some water, ma’am?”

“No, no, I’ll do it. I’d like the air.” Still, I stood beside her, looking out.

It was a beautiful night, thick with stars that hung low and bright over the river, a faint silver thread that wound its way through the dark. There was a moon, a slender sickle, riding low on its way below the curve of the earth, and one or two small campfires burned in the trees beside the river.

The window was open, and bugs were swarming in; a small cloud of them danced around the candle in the sconce behind us, and tiny winged things brushed my face and arms. Crickets sang, so many of them that their song was a high, constant sound, like a bow drawn over violin strings.

Phaedre moved to shut it—to sleep with a window open was considered most unhealthy, and likely was, given the various mosquito-borne diseases in this swampish atmosphere.

“I thought I heard something. Out there,” she said, nodding toward the dark below.

“Oh? Probably my husband,” I said. “Or Ulysses.”

“Ulysses?” she said, looking startled.

Jamie, Ian, and Ulysses had organized a system of patrol, and were doubtless out somewhere in the night, gliding round the house and keeping an eye on Hector’s mausoleum, just in case. Knowing nothing of the disappearing gold nor Jocasta’s mysterious visitor, though, Phaedre wouldn’t be aware of the increased vigilance, save in the indirect way in which slaves always knew things—the instinct that had doubtless roused her to look out the window.

“They’re just keeping an eye out,” I said, as reassuringly as I could. “With so many people here, you know.” The MacDonalds had gone to Farquard Campbell’s plantation to spend the night, and a goodly number of guests had gone with them, but there were still a lot of people on the premises.

She nodded, but looked troubled.

“It just feel like something ain’t right,” she said. “Don’t know what ’tis.”

“Your mistress’s eye—” I began, but she shook her head.

“No. No. I don’t know, but there something in the air; I be feelin’ it. Not just tonight, I don’t mean—something goin’ on. Something coming.” She looked at me, helpless to express what she meant, but her mood communicated itself to me.

It might be in part simply the heightened emotions of the oncoming conflict. One could in fact feel that in the air. But there might be something else, too—something subterranean, barely sensed, but there, like the dim form of a sea serpent, glimpsed for only a moment, then gone, and so put down to legend.

“My grannie, she taken from Africa,” Phaedre said softly, staring out at the night. “She talk to the bones. Say they tell her when bad things comin’.”

“Really?” In such an atmosphere, quiet save the night sounds, so many souls adrift around us, there seemed nothing unreal about such a statement. “Did she teach you to . . . talk to bones?”

She shook her head, but the corner of her mouth tucked in, a small, secret expression, and I thought she might know more about it than she was willing to say.

One unwelcome thought had occurred to me. I didn’t see how Stephen Bonnet could be connected to present events—surely he was not the man who had spoken to Jocasta out of her past, and just as surely, stealthy theft was not his style. But he did have some reason to believe there might be gold somewhere at River Run—and from what Roger had told us of Phaedre’s encounter with the big Irishman in Cross Creek . . .

“The Irishman you met, when you were out with Jemmy,” I said, changing my grip on the slick surface of the carafe, “have you ever seen him again?”

She looked surprised at that; clearly Bonnet was the farthest thing from her mind.

“No, ma’am,” she said. “Ain’t seen him again, ever.” She thought for a moment, big eyes hooded. She was the color of strong coffee with a dash of cream, and her hair—there had been a white man in her family tree at some time, I thought.

“No, ma’am,” she repeated softly, and turned her troubled gaze back to the quiet night and the sinking moon. “All I know—something ain’t right.”

Out by the stables, a rooster began to crow, the sound out of place and eerie in the dark.

55

WENDIGO

August 20, 1774

THE LIGHT IN THE MORNING room was perfect.

“We began with this room,” Jocasta had told her great-niece, raising her face to the sun that poured through the open double doors to the terrace, lids closed over her blind eyes. “I wanted a room to paint in, and chose this spot, where the light would come in, bright as crystal in the morning, like still water in the afternoon. And then we built the house around it.” The old woman’s hands, still long-fingered and strong, touched the easel, the pigment pots, the brushes, with affectionate regret, as she might caress the statue of a long-dead lover—a passion recalled, but accepted as forever gone.

And Brianna, sketching block and pencil in hand, had drawn as quickly, as covertly as she could, to catch that fleeting expression of grief outlived.

That sketch lay with the others in the bottom of her box, against the day when she might try it in more finished form, try to catch that merciless light, and the deep-carved lines of her aunt’s face, strong bones stark in the sun she could not see.

For now, though, the painting at hand was a matter of business, rather than love or art. Nothing suspicious had happened since Flora MacDonald’s barbecue, but her parents meant to stay for a little longer, just in case. With Roger still in Charlotte—he had written to her; the letter was secreted in the bottom of her box, with the private sketches—there was no reason why she shouldn’t stay, too. Hearing of her continued presence, two or three of Jocasta’s acquaintances, wealthy planters, had commissioned portraits of themselves or their families; a welcome source of income.

“I will never understand how ye do that,” Ian said, shaking his head at the canvas on her easel. “It’s wonderful.”

In all honesty, she didn’t understand how she did it, either; it didn’t seem necessary. She’d said as much in answer to similar compliments before, though, and realized that such an answer generally struck the hearer either as false modesty or as condescension.

She smiled at him, instead, letting the glow of pleasure she felt show in her face.

“When I was little, my father would take me walking on the Common, and we’d see an old man there often, painting with an easel. I used to make Daddy stop so I could watch, and he and the old man would chat. I mostly just stared, but once I got up the nerve to ask him how he did that and he looked down at me and smiled, and said, ‘The only trick, sweetie, is to see what you’re looking at.’”

Ian looked from her to the picture, then back, as though comparing the portrait with the hand that had made it.

“Your father,” he said, interested. He lowered his voice, glancing toward the door into the hallway. There were voices, but not close. “Ye dinna mean Uncle Jamie?”

“No.” She felt the familiar small ache at the thought of her first father, but put it aside. She didn’t mind telling Ian about him—but not here, with slaves all over the place and a constant flow of visitors who might pop in at any moment.

“Look.” She glanced over her shoulder to be sure no one was near, but the slaves were talking loudly in the foyer, arguing over a misplaced boot scraper. She lifted the cover of the small compartment that held spare brushes, and reached under the strip of felt that lined it.

“What do you think?” She held the pair of miniatures out for his inspection, one in either palm.

The look of expectation on his face changed to outright fascination, and he reached slowly for one of the tiny paintings.

“I will be damned,” he said. It was the one of her mother, her hair long and curling loose on bare shoulders, the small firm chin raised with an authority that belied the generous curve of the mouth above.

“The eyes—I don’t think those are quite right,” she said, peering into his hand. “Working so small . . . I couldn’t get the color, exactly. Da’s were much easier.”

Blues just were easier. A tiny dab of cobalt, highlighted with white and that faint green shadow that intensified the blue while vanishing itself . . . well, and that was Da, too. Strong, vivid, and straightforward.

To get a brown with true depth and subtlety, though, let alone something that even approximated the smoky topaz of her mother’s eyes—always clear, but changing like the light on a peat-brown trout stream—that needed more underpainting than was really possible in the tiny space of a miniature. She’d have to try again sometime, with a larger portrait.

“Are they like, do you think?”

“They’re wonderful.” Ian looked from one to the other, then he put the portrait of Claire gently back into its place. “Have your parents seen them yet?”

“No. I wanted to be sure they were right, before I showed them to anybody. But if they are—I’m thinking I can show them to the people who come to sit, and maybe get commissions for more miniatures. Those I could work on at home, on the Ridge; all I’d need is my paint box and the little ivory discs. I could do the painting from the sketches; I wouldn’t need the sitter to keep coming.”

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