A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 57

   

“Please, Mrs. Fraser, I’ve strained off all the liquid and bottled it—ye did say that we must feed the slops left over to the pig at once . . . did ye mean the big white sow that lives under the house?” She looked rather doubtful at the prospect, and no wonder.

“I’ll come and do it,” I said, rising. “Thank you, dear. You go along to the kitchen and ask Mrs. Bug for a bit of bread and honey before you go home, why don’t you?”

She curtsied and went off toward the kitchen; I could hear Young Ian’s voice, teasing Mrs. Bug, and saw Malva stop for an instant to pat her cap, twirl a wisp of hair around her finger to make it curl against her cheek, and straighten her slender back before going in.

“Well, Tom Christie may propose all he likes,” I murmured to Jamie, who had come out into the hall with me and seen her go, “but yours isn’t the only daughter with a mind of her own and strong opinions.”

He gave a small, dismissive grunt and went back to his study, while I continued across the hall, to find a large basin of soggy garbage, the remnants of the latest batch of penicillin-making, neatly collected and standing on the counter.

Opening the window at the side of the house, I peered out and down. Four feet below was the mound of dirt that marked the white sow’s den beneath the foundation.

“Pig?” I said, leaning out. “Are you at home?” The chestnuts were ripe and falling from the trees; she might well be out in the wood, gorging herself on chestnut mast. But no; there were hoofmarks in the soft soil, leading in, and the sound of stertorous breathing was audible below.

“Pig!” I said, louder and more peremptorily. Hearing the stirring and scraping of an enormous bulk beneath the floorboards, I leaned out and dropped the wooden basin neatly into the soft dirt, spilling only a little of its contents.

The thump of its landing was followed at once by the protrusion of an immense white-bristled head, equipped with a large and snuffling pink nose, and followed by shoulders the width of a hogshead of tobacco. With eager grunts, the rest of the sow’s great body followed, and she fell upon the treat at once, curly tail coiled tightly with delight.

“Yes, well, just you remember who’s the source from whom all blessing flows,” I told her, and withdrew, taking pains to shut the window. The sill showed considerable splintering and gouging—the result of leaving the slop basin too long on the counter; the sow was an impatient sort, who was quite willing to try to come into the house and claim her due, if it wasn’t forthcoming promptly enough to suit.

While partly occupied with the pig, my mind had not yet left the question of Bobby Higgins’s proposal, with all its potential complications. To say nothing of Malva. Granted, she was undoubtedly sensible of Bobby’s blue eyes; he was a very handsome young man. But she wasn’t insensible to Young Ian’s charms, either, less striking as they might be.

And what would Tom Christie’s opinion of Ian as a son-in-law be, I wondered. He wasn’t quite penniless; he had ten acres of mostly uncleared land, though no income to speak of. Were tribal tattoos more socially acceptable than a murderer’s brand? Probably—but then, Bobby was a Protestant, while Ian was at least nominally Catholic.

Still, he was Jamie’s nephew—a fact that might cut both ways. Christie was intensely jealous of Jamie; I knew that. Would he see an alliance between his family and ours as a benefit, or as something to be avoided at all costs?

Of course, if Roger succeeded in getting him to marry Amy McCallum, that might distract his mind a bit. Brianna hadn’t said anything to me about the widow—but now that I thought back, I realized that the fact that she hadn’t said anything might be an indication of suppressed feeling.

I could hear voices and laughter from the kitchen; obviously, everyone was having fun. I thought to go and join them, but glancing into Jamie’s study, saw that he was standing by his desk, hands clasped behind him, looking down at Lord John’s letter, a small frown of abstraction on his face.

His thoughts weren’t with his daughter, I thought, with a small, queer pang—but with his son.

I came into the study and put my arm round his back, leaning my head against his shoulder.

“Have you thought, perhaps, of trying to convince Lord John?” I said, a little hesitantly. “That the Americans may possibly have a point, I mean—convert him to your way of thinking.” Lord John himself would not be fighting in the coming conflict; Willie well might, and on the wrong side. Granted, fighting on either side was likely to be as dangerous—but the fact remained that the Americans would win, and the only conceivable way of swaying Willie was through his putative father, whose opinions he respected.

Jamie snorted, but put an arm around me.

“John? D’ye recall what I told ye about Highlanders, when Arch Bug came to me wi’ his wee ax?”

“They live by their oath; they will die by it, too.”

I shivered a little, and pressed closer, finding some comfort in his solidness. He was right; I had seen it myself, that brutal tribal fealty—and yet it was so hard to grasp, even when I saw it right under my nose.

“I remember,” I said.

He nodded at the letter, his eyes still fixed on it.

“He is the same. Not all Englishmen are—but he is.” He looked down at me, ruefulness tinged with begrudging respect. “He is the King’s man. It wouldna matter if the Angel Gabriel appeared before him and told him what will pass; he wouldna abandon his oath.”

“Do you think so?” I said, emboldened. “I’m not so sure.”

His brows went up in surprise, and I went on, hesitating as I groped for words.

“It’s—I do know what you mean; he’s an honorable man. But that’s just it. I don’t think he is sworn to the King—not in the same way Colum’s men swore to him, nor the way your men from Lallybroch swore to you. What matters to him—what he’d sell his life for—it’s honor.”

“Well, aye—it is,” he said slowly, brows knit in concentration. “But for a soldier, such as he is, honor lies in his duty, no? And that comes from his fealty to the King, surely?”

I straightened and rubbed a finger beneath my nose, trying to put into words what I thought.

“Yes, but that’s not quite what I mean. It’s the idea that matters to him. He follows an ideal, not a man. Of all the people you know, he may be the only one who would understand—this will be a war fought about ideals; maybe the first.”

He closed one eye and regarded me quizzically out of the other.

“Ye’ve been talking to Roger Mac. Ye’ll never have thought that on your own, Sassenach.”

“I gather you have, too,” I said, not bothering to refute the implied insult. Besides, he was right. “So you understand?”

He made a small Scottish noise, indicating dubious agreement.

“I did ask him what about the Crusades, did he not think that was fought for an ideal? And he was obliged to admit that ideals were involved, at least—though even there he said it was money and politics, and I said it always was, and surely it would be now, as well. But, aye, I understand,” he added hastily, seeing my nostrils flare. “But with regard to John Grey—”

“With regard to John Grey,” I said, “you do have a chance of convincing him, because he’s both rational and idealistic. You’d have to convince him that honor doesn’t lie in following the King—but in the ideal of freedom. But it’s possible.”

He made another Scottish noise, this one deep-chested and filled with uneasy doubt. And finally, I realized.

“You aren’t doing it for the sake of ideals, are you? Not for the sake of—of liberty. Freedom, self-determination, all that.”

He shook his head.

“No,” he said softly. “Nor yet for the sake of being on the winning side—for once. Though I expect that will be a novel experience.” He gave me a sudden rueful smile, and, caught by surprise, I laughed.

“Why, then?” I asked, more gently.

“For you,” he said without hesitation. “For Brianna and the wee lad. For my family. For the future. And if that is not an ideal, I’ve never heard of one.”

JAMIE DID HIS BEST in the office of ambassador, but the effect of Bobby’s brand proved insuperable. While admitting that Bobby was a nice young man, Mr. Wemyss was unable to countenance the notion of marrying his daughter to a murderer, no matter what the circumstances that had led to his conviction.

“Folk would take against him, sir, ye ken that fine,” he said, shaking his head in response to Jamie’s arguments. “They dinna stop to ask the why and wherefore, if a man’s condemned. His eye—he did nothing, I am sure, to provoke such a savage attack. How could I expose my dear Elizabeth to the possibility of such reprisals? Even if she should escape herself, what of her fate—and that of her children—if he is knocked over in the street one day?” He wrung his hands at the thought.

“And if he should one day lose his Lordship’s patronage, he could not look for decent employment elsewhere, not with yon mark of shame upon his face. They would be beggared. I have been left in such straits myself, sir—and would not for the world risk my daughter’s sharing such a fate again.”

Jamie rubbed a hand over his face.

“Aye. I understand, Joseph. A pity, but I canna say as ye’re wrong. For what the observation be worth, I dinna believe that Lord John would cast him off, though.”

Mr. Wemyss merely shook his head, looking pale and unhappy.

“Well, then.” Jamie pushed himself back from his desk. “I’ll have him in, and ye can give him your decision.” I rose, as well, and Mr. Wemyss sprang up in panic.

“Oh, sir! Ye will not leave me alone with him!”

“Well, I scarcely think he’ll try to knock ye down or pull your nose, Joseph,” Jamie said mildly.

“No,” Mr. Wemyss said dubiously. “Nooo . . . I suppose not. But still, I should take it very kindly if you would—would remain while I speak with him? And you, Mrs. Fraser?” He turned pleading eyes upon me. I looked at Jamie, who nodded in resignation.

“All right,” he said. “I’ll go and fetch him, then.”

“I AM SORRY, SIR.” Joseph Wemyss was nearly as unhappy as Bobby Higgins. Small in stature and shy in manner, he was unaccustomed to conducting interviews, and kept glancing at Jamie for moral support, before returning his attention to his daughter’s importunate suitor.

“I am sorry,” he repeated, meeting Bobby’s eyes with a sort of helpless sincerity. “I like ye, young man, and so does Elizabeth, I am sure. But her welfare, her happiness, is my responsibility. And I cannot think . . . I really do not suppose . . .”

“I should be kind to her,” Bobby said anxiously. “You know I should, zur. She should have a new gown once a year, and I should sell anything I have to keep her in shoes!” He, too, glanced at Jamie, presumably in hopes of reinforcement.

“I’m sure Mr. Wemyss has the highest regard for your intentions, Bobby,” Jamie said as gently as possible. “But he’s right, aye? It is his duty to make the best match he can for wee Lizzie. And perhaps . . .”

Bobby swallowed hard. He had groomed himself to the nines for this interview, and wore a starched neckcloth that threatened to choke him, with his livery coat, a pair of clean woolen breeches, and a pair of carefully preserved silk stockings, neatly darned in only a few places.

“I know I ha’n’t got a great deal of money,” he said. “Nor property. But I have got a good situation, zur! Lord John pays me ten pound a year, and has been so kind as to say I may build a small cottage on his grounds, and ’til it is ready, we might have quarters in his house.”

“Aye, so ye said.” Mr. Wemyss looked increasingly wretched. He kept looking away from Bobby, perhaps in part from natural shyness and unwillingness to refuse him eye-to-eye—but also, I was sure, to avoid seeming to look at the brand upon his cheek.

The discussion went on for a bit, but to no effect, as Mr. Wemyss could not bring himself to tell Bobby the real reason for his refusal.

“I—I—well, I will think further.” Mr. Wemyss, unable to bear the tension any longer, got abruptly to his feet and nearly ran out of the room—forcing himself to a stop at the door, though, to turn and say, “Mind, I do not think I shall change my mind!” before disappearing.

Bobby looked after him, nonplused, then turned to Jamie.

“Have I hopes, zur? I know you will be honest.”

It was a pathetic plea, and Jamie himself glanced away from those large blue eyes.

“I do not think so,” he said. It was said kindly, but definitely, and Bobby sagged a little. He had slicked down his wavy hair with water; now dried, tiny curls were popping up from the thick mass, and he looked absurdly like a newborn lamb that has just had its tail docked, shocked and dismayed.

“Does she—do ye know, zur, or ma’am”—turning to me—“are Miss Elizabeth’s affections given elsewhere? For if that was to be the case, sure I would bide. But if not . . .” He hesitated, glancing toward the door where Joseph had so abruptly disappeared.

“D’ye think I might have some chance of overcoming her father’s objections? Perhaps—perhaps if I was to find some way of coming by a bit o’ money . . . or if it was to be a question of religion . . .” He looked a little pale at this, but squared his shoulders resolutely. “I—I think I should be willing to be baptized Romish and he required it. I meant to tell him so, but forgot. Would ye maybe say so to him, zur?”

“Aye . . . aye, I will,” Jamie said reluctantly. “Ye’ve quite made up your mind as it’s Lizzie, then, have ye? Not Malva?”

Bobby was taken back by that.

“Well, to be honest, zur—I’m that fond of them both, I’m sure I should be happy with either one. But—well, truth to tell, I be mortal feared of Mr. Christie,” he confessed, blushing. “And I think he don’t like you, zur, while Mr. Wemyss does. If you could . . . speak for me, zur? Please?”

In the end, even Jamie was not proof against this guileless begging.

“I’ll try,” he conceded. “But I promise ye nothing, Bobby. How long will ye stay now, before ye go back to Lord John?”

“His Lordship’s given me a week for my wooing, zur,” Bobby said, looking much happier. “But I suppose ye’ll be going yourself tomorrow or next day?”

Jamie looked surprised.

“Going where?”

Bobby looked surprised in turn.

“Why . . . I don’t rightly know, zur. But I thought you must.”

After a bit more cross-talk, we succeeded in disentangling the tale. He had, it seemed, fallen in with a small group of travelers on the road, farmers driving a herd of pigs to market. Given the nature of pigs as traveling companions, he hadn’t stayed with them for more than one night, but over supper, in the course of casual talk, had heard them make reference to a meeting of sorts and speculate as to who might come to it.

“Your name was mentioned, zur—‘James Fraser,’ they said, and they mentioned the Ridge, too, so as I was sure ’twas you they meant.”

“What sort of meeting was it?” I asked curiously. “And where?”

He shrugged, helpless.

“Took no notice, ma’am. Only they said ’twas Monday next.”

Neither did he recall the names of his hosts, having been too much occupied in trying to eat without being overcome by the presence of the pigs. He was plainly too occupied at the moment with the results of his unsuccessful courtship to give much mind to the details, and after a few questions and confused answers, Jamie sent him off.

“Have you any idea—” I began, but then saw that his brows were furrowed; he obviously did.

“The meeting to choose delegates for a Continental Congress,” he said. “It must be that.”

He had had word after Flora MacDonald’s barbecue that the initial meeting place and time were to be abandoned, the organizers fearing interference. A new place and time would be established, John Ashe had told him—word would be sent.

But that was before the contretemps in downtown Cross Creek.

“I suppose a note might have gone astray,” I suggested, but the suggestion was a feeble one.

“One might,” he agreed. “Not six.”

“Six?”

“When I heard nothing, I wrote myself, to the six men I know personally within the Committee of Correspondence. No answer from any of them.” His stiff finger tapped once against his leg, but he noticed, and stilled it.

“They don’t trust you,” I said, after a moment’s silence, and he shook his head.

“Little wonder, I suppose, after I rescued Simms and tarred Neil Forbes in the public street.” Despite himself, a small smile flitted across his face at the memory. “And poor wee Bobby didna help, I expect; he would have told them he carried letters betwixt me and Lord John.”

That was probably true. Friendly and garrulous, Bobby was capable of keeping a confidence—but only if you told him explicitly which confidence to keep. Otherwise, anyone who shared a meal with him would know all his business by the time the pudding came.

“Can you do anything else to find out? Where the meeting is, I mean?”

He blew out his breath in mild frustration.

“Aye, maybe. But if I did, and went there—there’s a great chance they would put me out. If not worse. I think the risk of such a breach isna worth it.” He glanced at me, with a wry expression. “I suppose I should have let them roast the printer.”

I disregarded that, and came to stand beside him.

“You’ll think of something else,” I said, trying to be encouraging.

The big hour candle stood on his desk, half-burned, and he touched it. No one seemed ever to notice that the candle was never consumed.

“Perhaps . . .” he said meditatively. “I may find a way. Though I should hate to take another for the purpose.”

Another gem, he meant.

I swallowed a small lump in my throat at the thought. There were two left. One each, if Roger, or Bree, and Jemmy—but I choked that thought off firmly.

“What does it profit a man to gain the world,” I quoted, “if he lose his soul? It won’t do us any good to be secretly rich, if you get tarred and feathered.” I didn’t like that thought any better, but it wasn’t one I could avoid.

He glanced at his forearm; he had rolled up his sleeves for writing, and the fading burn still showed, a faint pink track among the sunbleached hairs. He sighed, went round his desk, and picked a quill from the jar.

“Aye. Perhaps I’d best write a few more letters.”

60

THE PALE HORSEMAN RIDES

ON THE TWENTIETH OF SEPTEMBER, Roger preached a sermon on the text, God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty. On the twenty-first of September, one of those weak things set out to prove the point.

Padraic and Hortense MacNeill and their children hadn’t come to church. They always did, and their absence aroused comment—enough that Roger asked Brianna next morning if she might walk round and visit, to see that there was nothing wrong.

“I’d go myself,” he said, scraping the bottom of his porridge bowl, “but I’ve promised to ride with John MacAfee and his father to Brownsville; he means to offer for a girl there.”

“Does he mean you to make them handfast on the spot if she says yes?” I asked. “Or are you just there to keep assorted Browns from assassinating him?” There had been no open violence since we had returned Lionel Brown’s body, but there were occasional small clashes, when a party from Brownsville happened to meet men from the Ridge now and then in public.

“The latter,” Roger said with a small grimace. “Though I’ve some hopes that a marriage or two betwixt the Ridge and Brownsville might help to mend matters, over time.”

Jamie, reading a newspaper from the most recent batch, looked up at that.

“Oh, aye? Well, it’s a thought. Doesna always work out just so, though.” He smiled. “My uncle Colum thought to mend just such a matter wi’ the Grants, by marrying my mother to the Grant. Unfortunately,” he added, turning over a page, “my mother wasna inclined to cooperate. She snubbed Malcolm Grant, stabbed my uncle Dougal, and eloped wi’ my father, instead.”

“Really?” Brianna hadn’t heard that particular story; she looked enchanted. Roger gave her a sidelong glance, and coughed, ostentatiously removing the sharp knife with which she’d been cutting up sausages.

“Well, be that as it may,” he said, pushing back from the table, knife in hand. “If ye wouldn’t mind having a look-in on Padraic’s family, just to see they’re all right?”

In the event, Lizzie and I came along with Brianna, meaning to call on Marsali and Fergus, whose cabin was a little way beyond the MacNeills’. We met Marsali on the way, though, coming back from the whisky spring, and so there were four of us when we came to the MacNeills’ cabin.

“Why are there so many flies, of a sudden?” Lizzie slapped at a large bluebottle that had landed on her arm, then waved at two more, circling round her face.

“Something’s dead nearby,” Marsali said, lifting her nose to sniff the air. “In the wood, maybe. Hear the crows?”

There were crows, cawing in the treetops nearby; looking up, I saw more circling, black spots against the brilliant sky.

“Not in the wood,” Bree said, her voice suddenly strained. She was looking toward the cabin. The door was tightly shut, and a mass of flies milled over the hide-covered window. “Hurry.”

The smell in the cabin was unspeakable. I saw the girls gasp and clamp their mouths tight shut, as the door swung open. Unfortunately, it was necessary to breathe. I did so, very shallowly, as I moved across the dark room and ripped down the hide that had been tightly nailed across the window.

“Leave the door open,” I said, ignoring a faint moan of complaint from the bed at the influx of light. “Lizzie—go and start a smudge fire near the door and another outside the window. Start it with grass and kindling, then add something—damp wood, moss, wet leaves—to make it smoke.”

Flies had begun to come in within seconds of my opening the window, and were whizzing past my face—deerflies, bluebottles, gnats. Drawn by the smell, they had been clustered on the sun-warmed logs outside, seeking entrance, avid for food, desperate to lay their eggs.

The room would be a buzzing hell in minutes—but we needed light and air, and would just have to deal with the flies as best we might. I pulled off my kerchief and folded it into a makeshift flyswatter, slapping to and fro with it as I turned to the bed.

Hortense and the two children were there. All nak*d, their pallid limbs glimmering with the sweat of the sealed cabin. They were clammy white where the sunlight struck, legs and bodies streaked with reddish-brown. I hoped that it was only diarrhea, and not blood.

Someone had moaned; someone moved. Not dead then, thank God. The bedcoverings had been thrown to the floor in a tangled heap—that was fortunate, as they were still mostly clean. I thought we had better burn the straw mattress, as soon as we got them off it.

“Do not put your fingers in your mouth,” I murmured to Bree, as we began to work, sorting the feebly twitching heap of humanity into its component parts.

“You have got to be kidding,” she said, speaking through her teeth while smiling at a pale-faced child of five or six, who lay half-curled in the exhausted aftermath of a diarrhetic attack. She worked her hands under the little girl’s armpits. “Come on, lovey, let me lift you.”

The child was too weak to make any protest at being moved; her arms and legs hung limp as string. Her sister’s state was even more alarming; no more than a year old, the baby didn’t move at all, and her eyes were sunk deep, a sign of severe dehydration. I picked up the tiny hand and gently pinched the skin between thumb and forefinger. It stayed for a moment, a tiny peak of grayish skin, then slowly, slowly, began to disappear.

“Bloody f**king hell,” I said softly to myself and bent swiftly to listen, hand on the child’s chest. She wasn’t dead—I could barely feel the bump of her heart—but wasn’t far from it. If she were too far gone to suck or drink, there was nothing that would save her.

Even as the thought passed through my mind, I was rising, looking about the cabin. No water; a hollowed gourd lay on its side by the bed, empty. How long had they been like this, with nothing to drink?

“Bree,” I said, my voice level but urgent. “Go and get some water—quickly.”

She had laid the older child on the floor, and was wiping the filth from her body; she glanced up, though, and the sight of my face made her drop the rag she was using and stand up at once. She grabbed the kettle I thrust into her hand and vanished; I heard her footsteps, running across the dooryard.

The flies were settling on Hortense’s face; I flapped the kerchief close to shoo them away. The cloth skimmed her nose, but her slack features barely twitched. She was breathing; I could see her belly, distended with gas, moving slightly.

Where was Padraic? Hunting, perhaps.

I caught a whiff of something under the overwhelming stench of voided bowels and leaned over, sniffing. A sweet, pungently fermented scent, like rotted apples. I put a hand under Hortense’s shoulder and pulled, rolling her toward me. There was a bottle—empty—under her body. A whiff of it was enough to tell me what it had contained.

“Bloody, bloody f**king hell,” I said, under my breath. Desperately ill and with no water to hand, she had drunk applejack, either to quench her thirst or to soothe the pain of the cramps. A logical thing to do—save that alcohol was a diuretic. It would leach even more water from a body that was already seriously dehydrated, to say nothing of further irritating a gastrointestinal tract that scarcely needed it.

Bloody Christ, had she given it to the children, too?

I stooped to the elder child. She was limp as a ragdoll, head lolling on her shoulders, but there was still some resilience to her flesh. A pinch of the hand; the skin stayed peaked, but returned to normal faster than the baby’s had.

Her eyes had opened when I pinched her hand. That was good. I smiled at her, and brushed the gathering flies away from her half-open mouth. The soft pink membranes were dry and sticky-looking.

“Hallo, darling,” I said softly. “Don’t worry now. I’m here.”

And was that going to help? I wondered. Damn it all; if only I had been a day earlier!

I heard Bree’s hurrying steps and met her at the door.

“I need—” I began, but she interrupted me.

“Mr. MacNeill’s in the woods!” she said. “I found him on the way to the spring. He’s—”

The kettle in her hands was still empty. I seized it with a cry of exasperation.

“Water! I need water!”

“But I—Mr. MacNeill, he’s—”

I thrust the kettle back into her hands and shoved past her.

“I’ll find him,” I said. “Get water! Give it to them—the baby first! Make Lizzie help you—the fires can wait! Run!”

I heard the flies first, a buzzing noise that made my skin crawl with revulsion. Out in the open, they had found him quickly, attracted by the smell. I took a hasty gulp of air and shoved through the buckbrush to where Padraic lay, collapsed in the grass beneath a sycamore.

He wasn’t dead. I saw that at once; the flies were a cloud, not a blanket—hovering, lighting, flicking away again as he twitched.

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