A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 54

   

I felt a trifle dazed myself. My ears were still ringing, but I looked up at a touch on my arm.

Jamie was squinting down at me, one eye closed, as though unsure he was seeing what he thought he was seeing. He was saying something I couldn’t make out, but the gestures he was making toward my face—coupled with a telltale twitching of the corner of his mouth—made his probable meaning quite clear.

“Ha,” I said coldly, my own voice sounding tinny and far off. I swiped at my face again with the apron. “You should talk!”

He looked like a piebald snowman, with black splotches of tar on his shirt, and clumps of white goose down clinging to his brows, his hair, and the stubble of his beard. He said something else, but I couldn’t hear him clearly. I shook my head and twisted a finger in my ear, indicating temporary deafness.

He smiled, took me by the shoulders, and leaned his head forward until his forehead met mine with a small thunk! I could feel him trembling slightly, but wasn’t sure whether it was laughter or exhaustion. Then he straightened up, kissed my forehead, and took me by the arm.

Neil Forbes sat in the middle of the street, legs splayed and careful hair disheveled. He was black with tar from the shoulder to the knee on one side. He’d lost a shoe, and helpful parties were trying to pick the feathers off him. Jamie led me in a wide circle round him, nodding pleasantly as we passed.

Forbes looked up, glowering, and said something muffled, heavy face twisting in dislike. On the whole, I thought it was just as well I couldn’t hear him.

IAN AND FERGUS HAD gone off with the majority of the rioters, no doubt to commit mayhem elsewhere. Jamie and I retired to the Sycamore, an inn on River Street, to seek refreshment and make repairs. Jamie’s hilarity gradually subsided as I picked tar and feathers off him, but was significantly quenched by hearing an account of my visit to Dr. Fentiman.

“Ye do what with it?” Jamie had flinched slightly during my recounting of the tale of Stephen Bonnet’s testicle. When I reached a description of the penis syringes, he crossed his legs involuntarily.

“Well, you work the needlelike bit down in, of course, and then flush a solution of something like mercuric chloride through the urethra, I suppose.”

“Through the, er . . .”

“Do you want me to show you?” I inquired. “I left my basket at the Bogueses’, but I can get it, and—”

“No.” He leaned forward and planted his elbows firmly on his knees. “D’ye suppose it burns much?”

“I can’t think it’s at all pleasant.”

He shuddered briefly.

“No, I shouldna think so.”

“I don’t think it’s really effective, either,” I added thoughtfully. “Pity to go through something like that, and not be cured. Don’t you think?”

He was watching me with the apprehensive air of a man who has just realized that the suspicious-looking parcel sitting next to him is ticking.

“What—” he began, and I hurried to finish.

“So you won’t mind going round to Mrs. Sylvie’s and making the arrangements for me to treat the girls, will you?”

“Who is Mrs. Sylvie?” he asked suspiciously.

“The owner of the local brothel,” I said, taking a deep breath. “Dr. Fentiman’s maid told me about her. Now, I realize that there might be more than one brothel in town, but I think that Mrs. Sylvie must certainly know the competition, if there is any, so she can tell you—”

Jamie drew a hand down over his face, pulling down his lower eyelids so that the bloodshot appearance of his eyes was particularly emphasized.

“A brothel,” he repeated. “Ye want me to go to a brothel.”

“Well, I’ll go with you if you like, of course,” I said. “Though I think you might manage better alone. I’d do it myself,” I added, with some asperity, “but I think they might not pay any attention to me.”

He closed one eye, regarding me through the other, which looked as though it had been sandpapered.

“Oh, I rather think they would,” he said. “So this is what ye had in mind when ye insisted on coming to town with me, is it?” He sounded a trifle bitter.

“Well . . . yes,” I admitted. “Though I really did need cinchona bark. Besides,” I added logically, “if I hadn’t come, you wouldn’t have found out about Bonnet. Or Lucas, for that matter.”

He said something in Gaelic, which I interpreted roughly as an indication that he could have lived quite happily in ignorance of either party.

“Besides, you’re quite accustomed to brothels,” I pointed out. “You had a room in one, in Edinburgh!”

“Aye, I did,” he agreed. “But I wasna marrit, then—or rather I was, but I—aye, well, I mean it quite suited me, at the time, to have folk think that I—” He broke off and looked at me pleadingly. “Sassenach, d’ye honestly want everyone in Cross Creek to think that I—”

“Well, they won’t think that if I go with you, will they?”

“Oh, God.”

At this point, he dropped his head into his hands and massaged his scalp vigorously, presumably under the impression that this would help him figure out some means of thwarting me.

“Where is your sense of compassion for your fellow man?” I demanded. “You wouldn’t want some hapless fellow to be facing a session with Dr. Fentiman’s syringe, just because you—”

“As long as I’m no required to face it myself,” he assured me, raising his head, “my fellow man is welcome to the wages of sin, and serve him just right, too.”

“Well, I’m rather inclined to agree,” I admitted. “But it isn’t only them. It’s the women. Not just the whores; what about all the wives—and the children—of the men who get infected? You can’t let all of them die of the pox, if they can be saved, surely?”

He had by this time assumed the aspect of a hunted animal, and this line of reasoning did not improve it.

“But—the penicillin doesna always work,” he pointed out. “What if it doesna work on the whores?”

“It’s a possibility,” I admitted. “But between trying something that might not work—and not trying at all . . .” Seeing him still looking squiggle-eyed, I dropped the appeal to reason and resorted to my best weapon.

“What about Young Ian?”

“What about him?” he replied warily, but I could see that my words had caused an instant vision to spring up in his mind. Ian was not a stranger to brothels—thanks to Jamie, inadvertent and involuntary as the introduction had been.

“He’s a good lad, Ian,” he said, stoutly. “He wouldna . . .”

“He might,” I said. “And you know it.”

I had no idea of the shape of Young Ian’s private life—if he had one. But he was twenty-one, unattached, and so far as I could see, a completely healthy young male of the species. Hence . . .

I could see Jamie coming reluctantly to the same conclusions. He had been a virgin when I married him, at the age of twenty-three. Young Ian, owing to factors beyond everyone’s control, had been introduced to the ways of the flesh at a substantially earlier age. And that particular innocence could not be regained.

“Mmphm,” he said.

He picked up the towel, rubbed his hair ferociously with it, then flung it aside, and gathered back the thick, damp tail, reaching for a thong to bind it.

“If it were done when ’tis done, ’twere well it were done quickly,” I said, watching with approval. “I think I’d best come, too, though. Let me fetch my box.”

He made no response to this, merely setting grimly about the task of making himself presentable. Luckily he hadn’t been wearing his coat or waistcoat during the contretemps in the street, so was able to cover the worst of the damage to his shirt.

“Sassenach,” he said, and I turned to find him regarding me with a bloodshot glint.

“Yes?”

“Ye’ll pay for this.”

MRS. SYLVIE’S ESTABLISHMENT was a perfectly ordinary-looking two-storied house, small and rather shabby. Its shingles were curling up at the ends, giving it a slight air of disheveled surprise, like a woman taken unawares with her hair just out of rollers.

Jamie made disapproving Scottish noises in his throat at sight of the sagging stoop and overgrown yard, but I assumed that this was merely his way of covering discomfiture.

I was not quite sure what I had been expecting Mrs. Sylvie to be—the only madam of my acquaintance having been a rather elegant French émigré in Edinburgh—but the proprietor of Cross Creek’s most popular bawdy house was a woman of about twenty-five, with a face as plain as piecrust, and extremely prominent ears.

In fact, I had momentarily assumed her to be the maid, and only Jamie’s greeting her politely as “Mrs. Sylvie” informed me that the madam herself had answered the door. I gave Jamie a sideways look, wondering just how he came to be acquainted with her, but then looked again and realized that he had noted the good quality of her gown and the large brooch upon her bosom.

She looked from him to me, and frowned.

“May we come in?” I said, and did so, not waiting for an answer.

“I’m Mrs. Fraser, and this is my husband,” I said, gesturing toward Jamie, who was looking pink around the ears already.

“Oh?” Mrs. Sylvie said warily. “Well, it’ll be a pound extra, if it’s the two of you.”

“I beg your—oh!” Hot blood flooded my face as I belatedly grasped her meaning. Jamie had got it instantly, and was the color of beetroot.

“It’s quite all right,” she assured me. “Not the usual, to be sure, but Dottie wouldn’t mind a bit, she being summat partial to women, you see.”

Jamie made a low growling noise, indicating that this was my idea and it was up to me to be carrying it out.

“I’m afraid we didn’t make ourselves clear,” I said, as charmingly as possible. “We . . . er . . . we merely wish to interview your—” I stopped, groping for an appropriate word. Not “employees,” surely.

“Girls,” Jamie put in tersely.

“Um, yes. Girls.”

“Oh, you do.” Her small bright eyes darted back and forth between us. “Methody, are you? Or Bright Light Baptists? Well, that’ll be two pound, then. For the nuisance.”

Jamie laughed.

“Cheap at the price,” he observed. “Or is that per girl?”

Mrs. Sylvie’s mouth twitched a little.

“Oh, per girl, to be sure.”

“Two pound per soul? Aye, well, who would put a price on salvation?” He was openly teasing now, and she—having plainly made out that we were neither potential clients nor door-to-door missionaries—was amused, but taking care not to seem so.

“I would,” she replied dryly. “A whore knows the price of everything but the value of nothing—or so I’ve been told.”

Jamie nodded at this.

“Aye. What’s the price of one of your girls’ lives, then, Mrs. Sylvie?”

The look of amusement vanished from her eyes, leaving them just as bright, but fiercely wary.

“Do you threaten me, sir?” She drew herself up tall, and put her hand on a bell that stood on the table near the door. “I have protection, sir, I assure you. You would be well-advised to leave at once.”

“If I wished to damage ye, woman, I should scarcely bring my wife along to watch,” Jamie said mildly. “I’m no so much a pervert as all that.”

Her hand, tight on the bell’s handle, relaxed a bit.

“You’d be surprised,” she said. “Mind,” she said, pointing a finger at him, “I don’t deal in such things—never think it—but I’ve seen them.”

“So have I,” said Jamie, the teasing tone gone from his voice. “Tell me, have ye maybe heard of a Scotsman called Mac Dubh?”

Her face changed at that; clearly she had. I was bewildered, but had the sense to keep quiet.

“I have,” she said. Her gaze had sharpened. “That was you, was it?”

He bowed gravely.

Mrs. Sylvie’s mouth pursed briefly, then she seemed to notice me again.

“Did he tell you?” she asked.

“I doubt it,” I said, giving him an eye. He sedulously avoided my glance.

Mrs. Sylvie uttered a short laugh.

“One of my girls went with a man to the Toad”—naming a low sort of dive near the river, called the Toad and Spoon—“and he dealt badly with her. Then dragged her out to the taproom and offered her to the men there. She said she knew she was dead—you know it is possible to be raped to death?” This last was addressed to me, in a tone that mingled aloofness with challenge.

“I do,” I said, very shortly. A brief qualm ran through me and my palms began to sweat.

“A big Scotchman was there, though, and he took issue with the proposal, apparently. It was him alone, though, against a mob—”

“Your specialty,” I said to Jamie, under my breath, and he coughed.

“—but he suggested that they deal cards for the girl. Played a game of brag, and won.”

“Really?” I said politely. Cheating at cards was another of his specialties, but one I tried to discourage his using, convinced that it would get him killed one day. No wonder he hadn’t told me about this particular adventure.

“So he picked up Alice, wrapped her in his plaid, and brought her home—left her at the door.”

She looked at Jamie with grudging admiration.

“So. Have you come to claim a debt, then? You have my thanks, for what they may be worth.”

“A great deal, madam,” he said quietly. “But no. We’ve come to try to save your girls from worse than drunken raparees.”

Her thin brows arched high in question.

“From the pox,” I said baldly. Her mouth fell open.

For all her relative youth, Mrs. Sylvie was a hard customer, and no easy sell. While fear of the pox was a constant factor in the life of a whore, talk of spirochetes cut no ice with her, and my proposition that I inject her staff—there were only three girls, it appeared—with penicillin met with a firm refusal.

Jamie allowed the wrangling to go on until it became clear we had reached a stone wall. Then he came in on a different tack.

“My wife isna proposing such a course only from the goodness of her heart, ken?” he said. By now, we had been invited to sit, in a neat little parlor adorned with gingham curtains, and he leaned forward gingerly, so as not to strain the joints of the delicate chair he was sitting on.

“The son of a friend came to my wife, saying he’d contracted the syphilis from a whore in Hillsboro. She saw the sore; there is no question but that the lad is poxed. He panicked, though, before she was able to treat him, and ran. We have been looking for him ever since—and heard just yesterday that he had been seen here, in your establishment.”

Mrs. Sylvie lost control of her face for an instant. It was back in a moment, but there was no mistaking the look of horror.

“Who?” she said hoarsely. “A Scotch lad? What did he look like?”

Jamie exchanged a brief, quizzical glance with me, and described Manfred McGillivray. By the time he had finished, the young madam’s face was white as a sheet.

“I had him,” she said. “Twice. Oh, Jesus.” She took a couple of deep breaths, though, and rallied.

“He was clean, though! I made him show me—I always do.”

I explained that while the chancre healed, the disease remained in the blood, only to emerge later. After all, had she not known of whores who contracted syphilis, without any exhibition of a previous sore?

“Yes, of course—but they can’t have taken proper care,” she said, jaw set stubbornly. “I always do, and my girls, too. I insist upon it.”

I could see denial setting in. Rather than admit she might be harboring a deadly infection, she would insist it was not possible, and within moments would have talked herself into believing it and would throw us out.

Jamie could see it, too.

“Mrs. Sylvie,” he said, interrupting her flow of justifications. She looked at him, blinking.

“Have ye a deck of cards in the house?”

“What? I—yes, of course.”

“Bring them, then,” he said with a smile. “Gleek, loo, or brag, your choice.”

She gave him a long, hard look, her mouth pressed tight. Then it relaxed a little.

“Honest cards?” she asked, and a small gleam showed in her eye. “And for what stakes?”

“Honest cards,” he assured her. “If I win, my wife injects the lot of ye.”

“And if you lose?”

“A cask of my best whisky.”

She hesitated a moment longer, eyeing him narrowly, estimating the odds. There was still a blob of tar in his hair, and feathers on his coat, but his eyes were deep blue and guileless. She sighed, and put out a hand.

“Done,” she said.

“DID YOU CHEAT?” I asked, grasping his arm to keep from stumbling. It was well after dark by now, and the streets of Cross Creek were not lighted, save by starlight.

“Didna have to,” he said, and yawned hugely. “She may be a good whore, but she’s no hand at cards. She should have chosen loo; that’s mostly luck, while brag takes skill. Easier to cheat at loo, though,” he added, blinking.

“What, exactly, constitutes a good whore?” I asked curiously. I had never considered the question of qualifications anent that profession, but supposed there must be some, beyond possession of the requisite anatomy and a willingness to make it available.

He laughed at that, but scratched his head, considering.

“Well, it helps if she has a genuine liking for men, but doesna take them verra serious. And if she likes to go to bed, that’s as well, too. Ouch.” I had stepped on a rock, and tightening my grip on his arm, had got him on the patch of skin burned by tar earlier in the day.

“Oh, sorry. Is it bad? I have a bit of balm I can put on it, when we get to the inn.”

“Och, no. Just blisters; it will bide.” He rubbed his arm gingerly, but shrugged off the discomfort, and taking me by the elbow, led me round the corner, toward the main street. We had decided earlier that since we might be late, we would stay at McLanahan’s King’s Inn, rather than make the long drive back to River Run.

The smell of hot tar still permeated this end of town, and the evening breeze swirled feathers into small drifts at the side of the road; now and then, a down feather floated past my ear like a slow-moving moth.

“I wonder, are they still picking the feathers off Neil Forbes?” Jamie said, a grin in his voice.

“Maybe his wife will just put a bolster cover on him and use him as a pillow,” I suggested. “No, wait, he hasn’t got a wife. They’ll have to—”

“Call him a rooster, and put him out in the yard to serve the hens,” Jamie suggested, giggling. “He’s a fine cock-a-doodle, if no much in the way of a cock.”

He wasn’t drunk—we had drunk weak coffee with Mrs. Sylvie, after the injections—but he was desperately tired; we both were, and suddenly in the state of exhaustion where the lamest joke seems immensely funny, and we staggered, bumping together and laughing at worse and worse jokes until our eyes teared.

“What’s that?” Jamie said suddenly, drawing a deep, startled breath through his nose. “What’s burning?”

Something substantial; there was a glow in the sky, visible over the roofs of the nearby houses, and the sharp scent of burning wood suddenly overlaid the thicker smell of hot tar. Jamie ran toward the corner of the street, with me hot on his heels.

It was Mr. Simms’s print shop; well ablaze. Evidently his political enemies, balked of their prey, had decided to vent their animosity on his premises.

A knot of men was milling in the street, much as they had earlier in the day. Again, there were calls of “Tory!” and a few were brandishing torches. More men were running down the street toward the scene of the fire, shouting. I caught a bellow of “Goddamn Whigs!” and then the two groups collided in a flurry of shoving and punching.

Jamie grabbed my arm and propelled me back the way we had come, out of sight around the corner. My heart was pounding, and I was short of breath; we ducked under a tree and stood panting.

“Well,” I said, after a short silence, filled with the shouts of the riot, “I suppose Fergus will have to find a different occupation. There’s an apothecary’s shop going cheap, I know.”

Jamie made a small sound, not quite a laugh.

“He’d do better to go into partnership wi’ Mrs. Sylvie,” he said. “There’s a business not subject to politics. Come on, Sassenach—we’ll go the long way round.”

When at length we reached the inn, we found Young Ian fidgeting on the porch, watching out for us.

“Where in the name of Bride have you been?” he demanded severely, in a manner that made me think suddenly of his mother. “We’ve been combin’ the town for ye, Uncle Jamie, and Fergus sure ye’d been caught up in the collieshangie yonder and maimed or killed.” He nodded toward the print shop; the blaze was beginning to die, though there was still enough light from it to see his face, set in a disapproving frown.

“We’ve been doing good deeds,” Jamie assured him piously. “Visiting the sick, as Christ commands us.”

“Oh, aye?” Ian responded, with considerable cynicism. “He said ye should visit those in prison, too. Too bad ye didna start wi’ that.”

“What? Why?”

“Yon bugger Donner’s escaped, that’s for why,” Ian informed him, seeming to take a grim pleasure in imparting bad news. “During the fight this afternoon. The gaoler came to join in the fun, and left the door on the latch; the bugger just walked out and awa’.”

Jamie inhaled deeply, then let his breath out slowly, coughing slightly from the smoke.

“Aye, well,” he said. “So we’re down by one print shop and one thief—but four whores to the good. D’ye think that a fair exchange, Sassenach?”

“Whores?” Ian exclaimed, startled. “What whores?”

“Mrs. Sylvie’s,” I said, peering at him. He looked shifty, though perhaps it was only the light. “Ian! You didn’t!”

“Well, of course he did, Sassenach,” Jamie said, resigned. “Look at him.” A guilty expression was spreading over Ian’s features like an oil slick on water, easy to make out, even by the flickering, ruddy light of the dying fire.

“I found out about Manfred,” Ian offered hastily. “He went downriver, meaning to find a ship in Wilmington.”

“Yes, we found that out, too,” I said a little testily. “Who was it? Mrs. Sylvie or one of the girls?”

His large Adam’s apple bobbed nervously.

“Mrs. Sylvie,” he said in a low voice.

“Right,” I said. “Fortunately, I have some penicillin left—and a nice, dull syringe. Inside with you, Ian, you abandoned wretch, and down with your breeks.”

Mrs. McLanahan, emerging onto the porch to inquire whether we would like a bit of late supper, overheard this and gave me a startled look, but I was well past caring.

Sometime later, we lay at last in the haven of a clean bed, safe from the upheavals and turmoils of the day. I had pried the window open, and the faintest of breezes disturbed the heaviness of the thick, hot air. Several soft gray flecks drifted in, feathers or bits of ash, spiraling like snowflakes toward the floor.

Jamie’s arm lay across me, and I could make out the soft, glaucous shapes of the blisters that covered most of his forearm. The air was harsh with burning, but the smell of tar lay like an abiding threat beneath. The men who had burned Simms’s shop—and come so close to burning Simms, and likely Jamie, as well—were rebels in the making, men who would be called patriots.

“I can hear ye thinking, Sassenach,” he said. He sounded peaceful, on the verge of sleep. “What is it?”

“I was thinking of tar and feathers,” I said softly, and very gently touched his arm. “Jamie—it’s time.”

“I know,” he answered just as softly.

Some men went by in the street outside, singing drunkenly, with torches; the flickering light flowed across the ceiling and was gone. I could feel Jamie watch it go, listening to the raucous voices as they faded down the street, but he said nothing, and after a bit, the big body that cradled me began to relax, sinking once again toward sleep.

“What are you thinking?” I whispered, not sure whether he could still hear me. He could.

“I was thinking that ye’d make a really good whore, Sassenach, were ye at all promiscuous,” he replied drowsily.

“What?” I said, quite startled.

“But I’m glad ye’re not,” he added, and began to snore.

57

THE MINISTER’S RETURN

September 4, 1774

ROGER STEERED CLEAR OF Coopersville on his way home. It wasn’t that he feared Ute McGillivray’s wrath, but he didn’t want to tarnish the happiness of his homecoming with coldness nor confrontation. Instead, he took the long way round, winding his way gradually up the steep slope toward the Ridge, pushing through overgrown parts where the forest had taken back the path, and fording small streams.

His mule splashed out of the last of these at the base of the trail, shaking itself and scattering droplets from its belly. Pausing to wipe sweat from his face, he spotted a movement on a large stone by the bank. Aidan, fishing, affecting not to have seen him.

Roger reined Clarence up alongside and watched for a moment, saying nothing. Then he asked, “Are they biting well?”

“Tolerable,” Aidan replied, squinting hard at his line. Then he looked up, a huge grin splitting his face from ear to ear, and flinging down his pole, sprang up, reaching with both hands, so that Roger could grasp his skinny wrists and swing him up onto the saddle in front of him.

“Ye’re back!” he exclaimed, throwing his arms about Roger and burying his face happily in Roger’s chest. “I waited for ye. Are ye a real minister now, then?”

“Amost. How’d ye know I’d be along today?”

Aidan shrugged. “I’ve been waitin’ the best part of a week, have I no?” He looked up into Roger’s face, round-eyed and quizzical. “Ye dinna look any different.”

“I’m not,” Roger assured him, smiling. “How’s the belly?”

“Prime. Ye want to see my scar?” He leaned back, pulling up his ratty shirttail to display a neat red four-inch weal across the pallid skin.

“Well done,” Roger approved. “Taking care of your Mam and wee Orrie, then, now ye’re mended, I suppose.”

“Oh, aye.” Aidan puffed his narrow chest. “I brought home six trout for supper last night, and the biggest one the size of me arm!” He stuck out a forearm in illustration.

“Ah, get on wi’ ye.”

“I did, then!” Aidan said indignantly, then twigged that he was being teased, and grinned.

Clarence was becoming restive, wanting home, and turned in little circles, stamping his feet and twitching at the reins.

“Best go. Ye want to ride up wi’ me?”

Aidan looked tempted, but shook his head.

“Nah, then. I promised Mrs. Ogilvie as I should come tell her, the minute ye came.”

Roger was surprised at that.

“Oh, aye? Why’s that?”

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