A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 56

   

Roger made it somehow to the end, sufficiently relieved at having the snake in custody that even leading the final hymn—an interminable back-and-forth “line hymn” in which he was obliged to chant each line, this echoed by the congregation—didn’t disconcert him too much, though he had almost no voice left and what there was creaked like an unoiled hinge.

His shirt was clinging to him and the cool air outside was a balm as he stood shaking hands, bowing, accepting the kind words of his flock.

“A grand sermon, Mr. MacKenzie, grand!” Mrs. Gwilty assured him. She nudged the wizened gentleman who accompanied her, who might be either her husband or her father-in-law. “Was it no the grand sermon, then, Mr. Gwilty?”

“Mmphm,” said the wizened gentleman judiciously. “No bad, no bad. Bit short, and ye left out the fine story aboot the harlot, but nay doot ye’ll get the way of it in time.”

“Nay doubt,” Roger said, nodding and smiling, wondering, What harlot? “Thank ye for coming.”

“Oh, wouldna have missed it for the world,” the next lady informed him. “Though the singing wasna quite what one might have hoped for, was it?”

“No, I’m afraid not. Perhaps next time—”

“I never did care for Psalm 109, it’s that dreary. Next time, perhaps ye’ll give us one o’ the mair sprightly ones, aye?”

“Aye, I expect—”

“DaddyDaddyDaddy!” Jem cannoned into his legs, clutching him affectionately round the thighs and nearly knocking him over.

“Nice job,” said Brianna, looking amused. “What was going on in the back of the room? You kept looking back there, but I couldn’t see anything, and—”

“Fine sermon, sir, fine sermon!” The older Mr. Ogilvie bowed to him, then walked off, his wife’s hand in his arm, saying to her, “The puir lad canna carry a tune in his shoe, but the preaching wasna sae bad, all things considered.”

Germain and Aidan joined Jemmy, all trying to hug him at once, and he did his best to encompass them, smile at everyone, and nod agreeably to suggestions that he speak louder, preach in the Gaelic, refrain from Latin (what Latin?) and Popish references, try to look more sober, try to look happier, try not to twitch, and put in more stories.

Jamie came out, and gravely shook his hand.

“Verra nice,” he said.

“Thanks.” Roger struggled to find words. “You—well. Thanks,” he repeated.

“Greater love hath no man,” Claire observed, smiling at him from behind Jamie’s elbow. The wind lifted her shawl, and he could see the side of her skirt moving oddly.

Jamie made a small amused sound.

“Mmphm. Ye might drop by, maybe, and have a word wi’ Rab McAfee and Isaiah Lachlan—perhaps a short sermon on the text, ‘He who loveth his son chasteneth him betimes?’”

“McAfee and Lachlan. Aye, I’ll do that.” Or perhaps he’d just get the McAfees and Jacky Lachlan alone and see to the chastening himself.

He saw off the last of the congregation, took his leave of Tom Christie and his family with thanks, and headed for home and luncheon, his own family in tow. Normally, there would be another service in the afternoon, but he wasn’t up to that yet.

Old Mrs. Abernathy was a little way before them on the path, being assisted by her friend, the slightly less-ancient Mrs. Coinneach.

“A nice-looking lad,” Mrs. Abernathy was remarking, her cracked old voice floating back on the crisp fall air. “But nervous, och! Sweating rivers, did ye see?”

“Aye, well, shy, I suppose,” Mrs. Coinneach replied comfortably. “I expect he’ll settle, though, in time.”

ROGER LAY IN BED, savoring the lingering sense of the day’s accomplishments, the relief of disasters averted, and the sight of his wife, the light from the embers glowing through the thin linen of her shift as she knelt by the hearth, touching her skin and the ends of her hair with light, so that she looked illuminated from within.

The fire banked for the night, she rose and peered at Jemmy, curled up in his trundle and looking deceptively angelic, before coming to bed.

“You look contemplative,” she said, smiling as she climbed onto the mattress. “What are you thinking about?”

“Trying to think what on earth I might have said that Mr. MacNeill could possibly have thought was Latin, let alone a Catholic reference,” he replied, companionably making room for her.

“You didn’t start singing ‘Ave Maria’ or anything,” she assured him. “I would have noticed.”

“Mm,” he said, and coughed. “Don’t mention the singing, aye?”

“It’ll get better,” she said firmly, and turned, pushing and squirming, to make a nest for herself. The mattress was stuffed with wool, much more comfortable—and a hell of a lot quieter—than corn shucks, but very prone to lumps and odd hollows.

“Aye, maybe,” he said, though thinking, Maybe. But it will never be what it was. No point in thinking of that, though; he’d grieved as much as he meant to. It was time to make the best of things and get on.

Comfortable at last, she turned to him, sighing in contentment as her body seemed to melt momentarily and remold itself around him—one of her many small, miraculous talents. She had put her hair in a thick plait for sleeping, and he ran his hand down its length, recalling the snake with a brief shudder. He wondered what Claire had done with it. Likely set it free in her garden to eat mice, pragmatist that she was.

“Did you figure out which harlot story it was you left out?” Brianna murmured, moving her h*ps against his in a casual but definitely nonaccidental sort of way.

“No. There are a terrible lot of harlots in the Bible.” He took the tip of her ear very gently between his teeth and she drew a deep, sudden breath.

“Whassa harlot?” said a small, sleepy voice from the trundle.

“Go to sleep, mate—I’ll tell ye in the morning,” Roger called, and slid a hand down over Brianna’s very round, very solid, very warm hip.

Jemmy would almost certainly be asleep in seconds, but they contented themselves with small, secret touches beneath the bedclothes, waiting to be sure he was soundly asleep. He slept like the dead, once firmly in dreamland, but had more than once roused from the drowsy foreshore at very awkward moments, disturbed by his parents’ unseemly noises.

“Is it like you thought it would be?” Bree asked, putting a thoughtful thumb on his nipple and rotating it.

“Is what—oh, the preaching. Well, bar the snake . . .”

“Not just that—the whole thing. Do you think . . .” Her eyes searched his, and he tried to keep his mind on what she was saying, rather than what she was doing.

“Ah . . .” His hand clamped over hers, and he took a deep breath. “Yeah. Ye mean am I still sure? I am; I wouldna have done such a thing if I weren’t.”

“Dad—Daddy—always said it was a great blessing to have a calling, to know that you were meant to be something in particular. Do you think you’ve always had a—a calling?”

“Well, for a time, I had the fixed notion that I was meant to be a deep-sea diver,” he said. “Don’t laugh; I mean it. What about you?”

“Me?” She looked surprised, then pursed her lips, thinking. “Well, I went to a Catholic school, so we were all urged to think about becoming priests or nuns—but I was pretty sure I didn’t have a religious vocation.”

“Thank God,” he said, with a fervency that made her laugh.

“And then for quite a while, I thought I should be a historian—that I wanted to be one. And it was interesting,” she said slowly. “I could do it. But—what I really wanted was to build things. To make things.” She pulled her hand out from under his and waggled her fingers, long and graceful. “But I don’t know that that’s a calling, really.”

“Do ye not think motherhood is a calling, of sorts?” He was on delicate ground here. She was several days late, but neither of them had mentioned it—or was going to, yet.

She cast a quick glance over her shoulder at the trundle bed, and made a small grimace, whose import he couldn’t read.

“Can you call something that’s accidental for most people a calling?” she asked. “I don’t mean it isn’t important—but shouldn’t there be some choice involved?”

Choice. Well, Jem had been thoroughly an accident, but this one—if there was one—they’d chosen, all right.

“I don’t know.” He smoothed the long rope of her braid against her spine, and she pressed closer in reflex. He thought she felt somehow riper than usual; something about the feel of her br**sts. Softer. Bigger.

“Jem’s asleep,” she said softly, and he heard the surprisingly deep, slow breathing from the trundle. She put her hand back on his chest, the other somewhat lower.

A little later, drifting toward dreamland himself, he heard her say something, and tried to rouse enough to ask her what it was, but managed only a small interrogative “Mm?”

“I’ve always thought I do have a calling,” she repeated, looking upward at the shadows in the beamed ceiling. “Something I was meant to do. But I don’t know yet what it is.”

“Well, ye definitely weren’t meant to be a nun,” he said drowsily. “Beyond that—I couldna say.”

THE MAN’S FACE was in darkness. He saw an eye, a wet shine, and his heart beat in fear. The bodhrana were talking.

There was wood in his hand, a tipper, a club—it seemed to change in size, immense, yet he handled it lightly, part of his hand, it beat the drumhead, beat in the head of the man whose eyes turned toward him, shining with terror.

Some animal was with him, something large and half-seen, brushing eager past his thighs into the dark, urgent for blood, and he after it, hunting.

The club came down, and down, and upanddown, upanddown, upanddown with the waggle of his wrist, the bodhran live and talking in his bones, the thud that shivered through his arm, a skull breaking inward with a wet, soft sound.

Joined for that instant, joined closer than man and wife, hearts one, terror and bloodlust both yielding to that soft, wet thud and the empty night. The body fell, and he felt it go away from him, a rending loss, felt earth and pine needles rough against his cheek as he fell.

The eyes shone wet and empty, and the face slack-lipped in firelight, one he knew, but he knew not the name of the dead, and the animal was breathing in the night behind him, hot breath on his nape. Everything was burning: grass, trees, sky.

The bodhrana were talking in his bones, but he could not make it out what they said, and he beat the ground, the soft limp body, the burning tree in a rage that made sparks fly, to make the drums leave his blood, speak clearly. Then the tipper flew free, his hand struck the tree and burst into flame.

He woke with his hand on fire, gasping. He brought his knuckles to his mouth by instinct, tasting silver blood. His heart was hammering so that he could scarcely breathe, and he fought the notion, trying to slow his heart, keep breathing, keep panic at bay, stop his throat closing up and strangling him.

The pain in his hand helped, distracting him from the thought of suffocation. He’d thrown a punch in his sleep, and hit the log wall of the cabin square. Jesus, it felt like his knuckles had burst. He pressed the heel of his other hand against them, hard, gritting his teeth.

Rolled onto his side and saw the wet shine of eyes in the ghost of firelight and would have screamed, if he’d had any breath.

“Are you all right, Roger?” Brianna whispered, voice urgent. Her hand touched his shoulder, his back, the curve of his brow, quickly seeking injury.

“Yeah,” he said, fighting for breath. “Bad . . . dream.” He wasn’t dreaming of suffocation; his chest was tight, every breath a conscious effort.

She threw back the covers and rose in a rustle of sheets, pulling him up.

“Sit up,” she said, low-voiced. “Wake all the way up. Breathe slow; I’ll make you some tea—well, something hot, at least.”

He hadn’t any breath to protest. The scar on his throat was a vise. The first agony in his hand had subsided; now it began to throb in time to his heart—fine, that was all he needed. He fought back the dream, the sense of drums beating in his bones, and in the struggle, found his breath start to ease. By the time Brianna brought him a mug of hot water poured over something foul-smelling, he was breathing almost normally.

He declined to drink whatever it was, whereupon she thriftily used it to bathe his scraped knuckles instead.

“Do you want to tell me about the dream?” She was heavy-eyed, still yearning for sleep, but willing to listen.

He hesitated, but he could feel the dream hovering in the night-still air, just behind him; to keep silent and lie back in the dark was to invite its return. And perhaps she should know what the dream had told him.

“It was a muddle, but to do with the fight—when we went to bring Claire back. The man—the one I killed—” The word stuck in his throat like a bur, but he got it out. “I was smashing in his head, and he fell, and I saw his face again. And suddenly I realized I’d seen him before; I—I know who he was.” The faint horror of knowing the man showed in his voice, and her heavy lashes rose, her eyes suddenly alert.

Her hand covered his injured knuckles, lightly, questioning.

“Do ye recall a wretched little thieftaker named Harley Boble? We met him, just the once, at the Gathering at Mount Helicon.”

“I remember. Him? You’re sure? It was dark, you said, and all confused—”

“I’m sure. I didn’t know, when I hit him, but I saw his face when he fell—the grass was on fire, I saw it clearly—and I saw it again, just now, in the dream, and the name was in my mind when I woke up.” He flexed his hand slowly, grimacing. “It seems a lot worse, somehow, to kill someone ye know.” And the knowledge of having killed a stranger was quite bad enough. It obliged him to think of himself as one capable of murder.

“Well, you didn’t know him, at the time,” she pointed out. “Didn’t recognize him, I mean.”

“No, that’s true.” It was, but didn’t help. The fire was smoored for the night, and the room was chilly; he noticed the gooseflesh on her bare forearms, the gold hairs rising. “You’re cold; let’s go back to bed.”

The bed still held a faint warmth, and it was unutterable comfort to have her curl close to his back, the heat of her body penetrating his bone-deep chill. His hand still throbbed, but the pain had dulled to a negligible ache. Her arm settled firmly round him, a loose fist curled under his chin. He bent his head to kiss her own knuckles, smooth and hard and round, felt her warm breath on his neck, and had the oddest momentary recollection of the animal in his dream.

“Bree . . . I did mean to kill him.”

“I know,” she said softly, and tightened her arm around him, as though to save him falling.

59

FROGGY GOES A-COURTING

From Lord John Grey

Mount Josiah Plantation

My dear Friend,

I write in some Perturbation of Spirit.

You will recall Mr. Josiah Quincy, I am sure. I should not have provided him with a Letter of Introduction to you, had I had any Notion of the eventual Outcome of his Efforts. For I am sure that it is by his Action that your Name is associated with the so-called Committee of Correspondence in North Carolina. A Friend, knowing of my Acquaintance with you, showed me a Missive yesterday, purporting to originate from this Body, and containing a List of its presumed Recipients. Your Name was among these, and the Sight of it in such Company caused me such Concern as to compel me to write at once to inform you of the Matter.

I should have burned the Missive at once, was it not apparent that it was only one of several Copies. The Others are doubtless in transit through various of the Colonies. You must move at once to disassociate yourself from any such Body, and take Pains that your Name does not appear in Future in such Contexts.

For be warned: the Mail is not safe. I have received more than one official Document—even some bearing royal Seals!—that not only show Signs of having been opened, but that in some Cases are blatantly marked with the Initials or Signatures of those Men who have intercepted and inspected them. Such Inspection may be imposed either by Whig or Tory, there is no telling, and I hear that Governor Martin himself is now having his Mail directed to his Brother in New York, thus to be brought to him by private Messenger—one of these was a recent Guest at my table—as he cannot trust its secure Delivery within North Carolina.

I can only hope that no incriminating Document containing your Name falls into the Hands of Persons with the Power to arrest or instigate other Proceedings against the Speakers of such Sedition as appears in it. I apologize most sincerely, if my Inadvertence in introducing Mr. Quincy should in any way have endangered or inconvenienced you, and I will, I assure you, lend my every Effort to correct the Situation so far as may be in my Power.

Meanwhile, I offer you the Services of Mr. Higgins, should you require secure Delivery of any Document, not merely Letters addressed to myself. He is completely trustworthy, and I will send him regularly to you, in case you may require him.

Still, I am in Hopes that the Situation overall may yet be retrieved. I think those Hotheads who urge Rebellion must be for the most Part ignorant of the Nature of War, or surely they would not risk its Terrors and Hardships, nor yet think lightly of shedding Blood or the Sacrifice of their own Lives for the sake of so Small a Disagreement with their Parent.

Feeling in London at present is that the Matter will amount to no more than “a few bloody Noses,” as Lord North puts it, and I trust it may be so.

This News has also a personal Aspect; my son William has purchased a Lieutenant’s Commission, and will join his Regiment almost immediately. I am of course proud of him—and yet, knowing the Dangers and Hardships of a Soldier’s Life, I confess that I should have preferred him to adopt another Course, either devoting himself to the Conduct of his considerable Estates, or, if he felt this too tame a Life, perhaps entering the Realm of Politics or Commerce—for he has much natural Ability to add to the Power of his Resources, and might well achieve some Influence in such Spheres.

Those Resources are of course still within my Control, until William shall attain his Majority. But I could not gainsay him, so exigent was his Desire—and so vivid my Memories of myself at that Age, and my Determination to serve. It may be that he will have his Fill of Soldiering quickly, and adopt another Course. And I will admit that the military Life has many Virtues to recommend it, stern as these Virtues may sometimes be.

On a less alarming Note—

I find myself returned unexpectedly to the Role of Diplomat. Not, I hasten to add, on behalf of His Majesty, but rather on behalf of Robert Higgins, who begs that I will employ what small Influence I possess in advancing his Prospects for Marriage.

I have found Mr. Higgins a good and faithful Servant, and am pleased to offer what Assistance I may; I hope you will find yourself similarly disposed, for as you will see, your Advice and Counsel is most urgently desired and, in fact, quite indispensable.

There is some small Delicacy involved in this Matter, and upon this Point, I would beg your Consideration; your Discretion I of course trust implicitly. It would appear that Mr. Higgins has formed some Attachment to two young Ladies, both resident on Fraser’s Ridge. I have pointed out to him the Difficulty of fighting on two Fronts, as it were, and advised him to concentrate his Forces so as to provide the best chance of Success in his Attack upon a single Object—with, perhaps, the Possibility of falling back to regroup, should his initial Essay fail.

The two Ladies in question are Miss Wemyss and Miss Christie, both possessed of Beauty and Charm in Abundance, according to Mr. Higgins, who is most eloquent in their Praises. Pressed to choose between them, Mr. Higgins protested that he could not—but after some little Discussion on the matter, has at length settled upon Miss Wemyss as his first Choice.

This is a practical Decision, and the Reasons for his Choice concern not only the Lady’s undoubted Attractions, but a more mundane Consideration: viz, that the Lady and her Father are both Bond Servants, indentured to you. I am, by Reason of Mr. Higgins’s devoted Service, offering to purchase both Indentures, should this be agreeable to you, upon Miss Wemyss’s Agreement to wed Mr. Higgins.

I should not wish to deprive you thus of two valued Servants, but Mr. Higgins feels that Miss Wemyss will not wish to leave her Father. By the same Token, he hopes that my offering to free Father and Daughter from Servitude (for I have agreed that I would do so, provided that Mr. Higgins’s Employment with me shall continue) would be sufficient Inducement to overcome any Objections which Mr. Wemyss might present on Account of Mr. Higgins’s lack of Connexions and personal Property, or such other small Impediments to the Marriage as might present themselves.

I collect that Miss Christie, while equally attractive, has a Father who may be somewhat more difficult of Persuasion, and her social Situation is somewhat higher than that of Miss Wemyss. Still, should Miss Wemyss or her father decline Mr. Higgins’s Offer, I will do my Best, with your Assistance, to devise some Inducement that might appeal to Mr. Christie.

What think you of this Plan of Attack? I beg you to consider the Prospects carefully, and if you feel that the Proposal might be received favorably, to broach the Matter to Mr. Wemyss and his Daughter—if possible, with such Discretion as not to prejudice a secondary Expedition, should that prove necessary.

Mr. Higgins is most sensible of his inferior Position, viewed as a potential Groom, and thus most conscious of the Favor he seeks, as is

Your most humble and obedient Servant,

John Grey

“. . . such other small Impediments to the Marriage as might present themselves,” I read, over Jamie’s shoulder. “Like being a convicted murderer with a brand on his cheek, no family, and no money, do you think he means?”

“Aye, like that,” Jamie agreed, straightening out the sheets of paper and tapping the edges straight. He was clearly amused by Lord John’s letter, but his brows had drawn together, though I didn’t know whether this was a sign of concern over Lord John’s news about Willie, or merely concentration on the delicate question of Bobby Higgins’s proposal.

The latter, evidently, for he glanced upward, toward the room that Lizzie and her father shared. No sound of movement came through the ceiling, though I’d seen Joseph go upstairs a little earlier.

“Asleep?” Jamie asked, eyebrows raised. He looked involuntarily at the window. It was mid-afternoon, and the yard was cheerfully awash in mellow light.

“Common symptom of depression,” I said, with a small shrug. Mr. Wemyss had taken the dissolution of Lizzie’s betrothal hard—much more so than had his daughter. Frail-looking to begin with, he had noticeably lost weight, and had withdrawn into himself, speaking only when spoken to, and becoming increasingly hard to rouse from sleep in the mornings.

Jamie struggled momentarily with the concept of depression, then dismissed it with a brief shake of the head. He tapped the stiff fingers of his right hand thoughtfully on the table.

“What d’ye think, Sassenach?”

“Bobby’s a lovely young man,” I said dubiously. “And Lizzie obviously likes him.”

“And if the Wemysses were still indentured, Bobby’s proposal would likely have some appeal,” Jamie agreed. “But they’re not.” He had given Joseph Wemyss his papers of indenture some years earlier, and Brianna had hastily freed Lizzie from her own bond nearly as soon as it was made. That was not a matter of public knowledge, though, since Joseph’s presumed status as a bondsman protected him from service in the militia. Likewise, as a bondmaid, Lizzie benefited from Jamie’s overt protection, as she was considered his property; no one would dare to trouble her or treat her with open disrespect.

“Perhaps he’d be willing to engage them as paid servants,” I suggested. “Their combined salary would likely be a good deal less than the price of two indentures.” We paid Joseph, but his salary was only three pounds a year, though with room, board, and clothing supplied.

“I will suggest as much,” Jamie said, but with an air of dubiousness. “But I’ll have to speak with Joseph.” He glanced upward once more, and shook his head.

“Speaking of Malva . . .” I said, glancing across the hall and lowering my voice. She was in the surgery, straining liquid from the bowls of mold that provided our supply of penicillin. I had promised to send more to Mrs. Sylvie, with a syringe; I hoped she would use it.

“Do you think Tom Christie would be receptive, if Joseph isn’t? I think both girls are rather partial to Bobby.”

Jamie made a mildly derisive noise at the thought.

“Tom Christie marry his daughter to a murderer, and a penniless murderer at that? John Grey doesna ken the man at all, or he wouldna be suggesting such a thing. Christie’s proud as Nebuchadnezzar, if not more so.”

“Oh, as proud as all that, is he?” I said, amused despite myself. “Who do you think he would find suitable, here in the wilderness?”

Jamie lifted one shoulder in a shrug.

“He hasna honored me with his confidences in the matter,” he said dryly. “Though he doesna let his daughter walk out wi’ any of the young lads hereabouts; I imagine none seems worthy to him. I shouldna be surprised at all, if he were to contrive some means of sending her to Edenton or New Bern to make a match, and he can contrive a way to do it. Roger Mac says he’s mentioned such a course.”

“Really? He’s getting quite thick with Roger these days, isn’t he?”

A reluctant smile crossed his face at that.

“Aye, well. Roger Mac takes the welfare of his flock to heart—with an eye to his own, nay doubt.”

“Whatever do you mean by that?”

He eyed me for a moment, evidently judging my capacity for keeping secrets.

“Mmphm. Well, ye mustna mention it to Brianna, but Roger Mac has it in mind to make a match between Tom Christie and Amy McCallum.”

I blinked, but then considered. It wasn’t really a bad idea, though not one that would have occurred to me. Granted, Tom was likely more than twenty-five years older than Amy McCallum, but he was still healthy and strong enough to provide for her and her sons. And she plainly needed a provider. Whether she and Malva could share a house was another question; Malva had had the running of her father’s house since she could manage it. She was amiable, certainly, but I rather thought she had as much pride as her father, and wouldn’t take kindly to being supplanted.

“Mmm,” I said dubiously. “Perhaps. What do you mean about Roger’s own welfare, though?”

Jamie raised one thick eyebrow.

“Have ye not seen the way the widow McCallum looks at him?”

“No,” I said, taken aback. “Have you?”

He nodded.

“I have, and so has Brianna. She bides her time for the moment—but mark my words, Sassenach: if wee Roger doesna see the widow safely marrit soon, he’ll find hell nay hotter than his own hearth.”

“Oh, now. Roger isn’t looking back at Mrs. McCallum, is he?” I demanded.

“No, he is not,” Jamie said judiciously, “and that’s why he’s still in possession of his balls. But if ye think my daughter is one to stand—”

We had been speaking in low voices and, at the sound of the surgery door opening, stopped abruptly. Malva poked her head into the study, her cheeks flushed and wispy tendrils of dark hair floating round her face. She looked like a Dresden figurine, despite the stains on her apron, and I saw Jamie smile at her look of eager freshness.

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