A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 60

   

“I’ve brought ye a wee bit to eat, a leannan,” she said briskly, nudging the barely touched bowl of parritch and plate of cold toast aside to make room for the fresh provisions. “Ye’re no catching, are ye?”

Barely waiting for my shake of the head, she leaned over the bed and gently decanted Henri-Christian into my arms. Undiscriminatingly friendly as always, he butted his head under my chin, nuzzled into my chest, and began mouthing my knuckles, his sharp little baby teeth making small dents in my skin.

“Hallo, what’s happened here?” I frowned, smoothing the soft brown licks of baby hair off his rounded brow, where the yellowing stain of an ugly bruise showed at his hairline.

“The spawn of the de’il tried to kill the poor wean,” Mrs. Bug informed me, mouth pulled tight. “And would have done, too, save for Roger Mac, bless him.”

“Oh? Which spawn was this?” I asked, familiar with Mrs. Bug’s methods of description.

“Some of the fishers’ weans,” Jamie said. He put out a finger and touched Henri-Christian’s nose, snatched it away as the baby grabbed for it, then touched his nose again. Henri-Christian giggled and grabbed his own nose, entranced by the game.

“The wicked creatures tried to drown him,” Mrs. Bug amplified. “Stole the puir wee laddie in his basket and set him adrift in the creek!”

“I shouldna think they meant to drown him,” Jamie said mildly, still absorbed in the game. “If so, they wouldna have troubled wi’ the basket, surely.”

“Hmph!” was Mrs. Bug’s response to this piece of logic. “They didna mean to do him any good,” she added darkly.

I had been taking a quick inventory of Henri-Christian’s physique, finding several more healing bruises, a small scabbed cut on one heel, and a scraped knee.

“Well, you’ve been bumped about a bit, haven’t you?” I said to him.

“Ump. Heeheehee!” said Henri-Christian, vastly entertained by my explorations.

“Roger saved him?” I asked, glancing up at Jamie.

He nodded, one side of his mouth turning up a little.

“Aye. I didna ken what was going on, ’til wee Joanie rushed up to me, shouting as they’d taken her brother—but I got there in time to see the end of the matter.”

The boys had set the baby’s basket afloat in the trout pool, a wide, deep spot in the creek, where the water was fairly quiet. Made of stoutly woven reeds, the basket had floated—long enough for the current to push it toward the outfall from the pool, where the water ran swiftly through a stretch of rocks, before plunging over a three-foot fall, down into a tumbling churn of water and boulders.

Roger had been building a rail fence, within earshot of the creek. Hearing boys shouting and Félicité’s steam-whistle shrieks, he had dropped the rail he was holding and rushed down the hill, thinking that she was being tormented.

Instead, he had burst from the trees just in time to see Henri-Christian, in his basket, tip slowly over the edge of the outfall and start bumping crazily from rock to rock, spinning in the current and taking on water.

Running down the bank and launching himself in a flat dive, Roger had landed full-length in the creek just below the fall, in time for Henri-Christian, bawling with terror, to drop from his sodden basket, plummet down the fall, and land on Roger, who grabbed him.

“I was just in time to see it,” Jamie informed me, grinning at the memory. “And then to see Roger Mac rise out o’ the water like a triton, wi’ duckweed streaming from his hair, blood runnin’ from his nose, and the wee lad clutched tight in his arms. A terrible sight, he was.”

The miscreant boys had followed the basket’s career, yelling along the banks, but were now struck dumb. One of them moved to flee, the others starting up like a flight of pigeons, but Roger had pointed an awful finger at them and bellowed, “Sheas!” in a voice loud enough to be heard over the racket of the creek.

Such was the force of his presence, they did stay, frozen in terror.

Holding them with his glare, Roger had waded almost to the shore. There, he squatted and cupped a handful of water, which he poured over the head of the shrieking baby—who promptly quit shrieking.

“I baptize thee, Henri-Christian,” Roger had bellowed, in his hoarse, cracked voice. “In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost! D’ye hear me, wee bastards? His name is Christian! He belongs to the Lord! Trouble him again, ye lot of scabs, and Satan will pop up and drag ye straight down screaming—TO HELL!”

He stabbed an accusing finger once more at the boys, who this time did break and run, scampering wildly into the brush, pushing and falling in their urge to escape.

“Oh, dear,” I said, torn between laughter and dismay. I looked down at Henri-Christian, who had lately discovered the joys of thumb-sucking and was absorbed in further study of the art. “That must have been impressive.”

“It impressed me, to be sure,” Jamie said, still grinning. “I’d no notion Roger Mac had it in him to preach hellfire and damnation like that. The lad’s a great roar to him, cracked voice and all. He’d have a good audience, did he do it for a Gathering, aye?”

“Well, that explains what happened to his voice,” I said. “I wondered. Do you think it was only mischief, though? Them putting the baby in the creek?”

“Oh, it was mischief, sure enough,” he said, and cupped a big hand gently round Henri-Christian’s head. “Not just boys’ mischief, though.”

Jamie had caught one of the fleeing boys as they hurtled past him, grabbing him by the neck and quite literally scaring the piss out of the lad. Walking the boy firmly into the wood, he’d pinned him hard against a tree and demanded to know the meaning of this attempted murder.

Trembling and blubbering, the boy had tried to excuse it, saying that they hadn’t meant any harm to the wean, truly! They’d only wanted to see him float—for their parents all said he was demon-born, and everyone kent that those born of Satan floated, because the water would reject their wickedness. They’d taken the baby in his basket and put that into the water, because they were afraid to touch him, fearing his flesh would burn them.

“I told him I’d burn him myself,” Jamie said with a certain grimness, “and did.” He’d then dismissed the smarting lad, with instructions to go home, change his breeks, and inform his confederates that they were expected in Jamie’s study before supper to receive their own share of retribution—or else Himself would be coming round to their houses after supper, to thrash them before their parents’ eyes.

“Did they come?” I asked, fascinated.

He gave me a look of surprise.

“Of course. They took their medicine, and then we went to the kitchen and had bread and honey. I’d told Marsali to bring the wee lad, and after we’d eaten, I took him on my knee, and had them all come and touch him, just to see.”

He smiled lopsidedly.

“One of the lads asked me was it true, what Mr. Roger said, about the wean belonging to the Lord? I told him I certainly wouldna argue with Mr. Roger about that—but whoever else he belonged to, Henri-Christian belongs to me, as well, and best they should remember it.”

His finger trailed slowly down Henri-Christian’s round, smooth cheek. The baby was nearly asleep now, heavy eyelids closing, a tiny, glistening thumb half in, half out of his mouth.

“I’m sorry I missed that,” I said softly, so as not to wake him. He’d grown much warmer, as sleeping babies did, and heavy in the curve of my arm. Jamie saw that I was having difficulty holding him, and took him from me, handing him back to Mrs. Bug, who had been bustling quietly round the room, tidying, all the while listening with approval to Jamie’s account.

“Oh, ’twas something to see,” she assured me in a whisper, patting Henri-Christian’s back as she took him. “And the lads all poking their fingers out to touch the bairnie’s wee belly, gingerlike, as if they meant to prod a hot potato, and him squirmin’ and giggling like a worm wi’ the fits. The wicked little gomerels’ eyes were big as sixpences!”

“I imagine they were,” I said, amused.

“On the other hand,” I remarked sotto voce to Jamie as she left with the baby, “if their parents think he’s demon-born, and you’re his grandfather . . .”

“Well, you’re his grannie, Sassenach,” Jamie said dryly. “It might be you. But aye, I’d prefer not to have them dwell on that aspect of the matter.”

“No,” I agreed. “Though—do any of them know, do you think, that Marsali isn’t your daughter by blood? They must know about Fergus.”

“It wouldna much matter,” he said. “They think wee Henri’s a changeling, in any case.”

“How do you know that?”

“People talk,” he said briefly. “Are ye feeling well in yourself, Sassenach?”

Relieved of the baby’s weight, I had put back the covers a bit to let in air. Jamie stared at me in disapproval.

“Christ, I can count all your ribs! Right through your shift!”

“Enjoy the experience while you can,” I advised him tartly, though I felt a sharp pang of hurt. He seemed to sense this, for he took my hand, tracing the lines of the deep blue veins that ran across the back of it.

“Dinna fash yourself, Sassenach,” he said, more gently. “I didna mean it that way. Here, Mrs. Bug’s brought ye something tasty, I expect.” He lifted the lid off a small covered dish, frowned at the substance in it, then stuck a cautious finger in and licked it.

“Maple pudding,” he announced, looking happy.

“Oh?” I had no appetite at all yet, but maple pudding sounded at least innocuous, and I made no objection as he scooped up a spoonful, guiding it toward my mouth with the concentration of a man flying an airliner.

“I can feed myself, you kn—” He slipped the spoon between my lips, and I resignedly sucked the pudding off it. Amazing revelations of creamy sweetness immediately exploded in my mouth, and I closed my eyes in minor ecstasy, recalling.

“Oh, God,” I said. “I’d forgotten what good food tastes like.”

“I knew ye hadn’t been eating,” he said with satisfaction. “Here, have more.”

I insisted upon taking the spoon myself, and managed half the dish; Jamie ate the other half, at my urging.

“You may not be as thin as I am,” I said, turning my hand over and grimacing at the sight of my protruding wrist bones, “but you haven’t been eating a lot, either.”

“I suppose not.” He scraped the spoon carefully round the bowl, retrieving the last bits of pudding, and sucked the spoon clean. “It’s been . . . busy.”

I watched him narrowly. He was being patently cheerful, but my rusty sensibilities were beginning to come back. For some unknowable span of time, I’d had neither energy nor attention for anything that lay outside the fever-racked shell of my body; now I was seeing the small familiarities of Jamie’s body, voice and manner, and becoming reattuned to him, like a slack violin string being tightened in the presence of a tuning fork.

I could feel the vibration of some strain in him, and I was beginning to think it wasn’t all due to my recent near-demise.

“What?” I said.

“What?” He raised his eyebrows in question, but I knew him too well for that. The question alone gave me confidence that I was right.

“What aren’t you telling me?” I asked, with what patience I could muster. “Is it Brown again? Have you got news of Stephen Bonnet? Or Donner? Or has the white sow eaten one of the children and choked to death?”

That made him smile, at least, though only for a moment.

“Not that,” he said. “She went for MacDonald, when he called a few days ago, but he made it onto the porch in time. Verra agile the Major is, for a man of his age.”

“He’s younger than you are,” I objected.

“Well, I’m agile, too,” he said logically. “The sow hasna got me yet, has she?”

I felt a qualm of unease at his mention of the Major, but it wasn’t news of political unrest or military rumblings that was troubling Jamie; he would have told me that at once. I narrowed my eyes at him again, but didn’t speak.

He sighed deeply.

“I am thinking I must send them away,” he said quietly, and took my hand again.

“Send who away?”

“Fergus and Marsali and the weans.”

I felt a sharp, sudden jolt, as though someone had struck me just below the breastbone, and found it suddenly difficult to draw breath.

“What? Why? And—and where?” I managed to ask.

He rubbed his thumb lightly over my knuckles, back and forth, his eyes focused on the small motion.

“Fergus tried to kill himself, three days ago,” he said very quietly.

My hand gripped his convulsively.

“Holy God,” I whispered. He nodded, and I saw that he was unable to speak for the moment; his teeth were set in his lower lip.

Now it was I who took his hand in both of mine, feeling coldness seep through my flesh. I wanted to deny it, reject the notion utterly—but couldn’t. It sat there between us, an ugly thing like a poisonous toad that neither of us wished to touch.

“How?” I said at last. My voice seemed to echo in the room. I wanted to say, “Are you sure?” but I knew he was.

“With a knife,” he replied literally. The corner of his mouth twitched again, but not with humor. “He said he would have hanged himself, but he couldna tie the rope with one hand. Lucky, that.”

The pudding had formed a small, hard ball, like rubber, that lay in the bottom of my stomach.

“You . . . found him? Or was it Marsali?”

He shook his head.

“She doesna ken. Or rather, I expect she does, but she’s no admitting it—to either of them.”

“He can’t have been badly wounded, then, or she’d have to know for sure.” My chest still hurt, but the words were coming more easily.

“No. I saw him go past, whilst I was scraping a deer’s hide up on the hill. He didna see me, and I didna call out—I dinna ken what it was that struck me queer about him . . . but something did. I went on wi’ my work for a bit—I didna want to go far from the house, in case—but it niggled at me.” He let go of my hand and rubbed his knuckles underneath his nose.

“I couldna seem to let go of the thought that something was amiss, and finally I put down my work and went after him, thinking myself all kinds of a fool for it.”

Fergus had headed over the end of the Ridge, and down the wooded slope that led to the White Spring. This was the most remote and secluded of the three springs on the Ridge, called “white” because of the large pale boulder that stood near the head of the pool.

Jamie had come down through the trees in time to see Fergus lie down by the spring, sleeve rolled up and coat folded beneath his head, and submerge his handless left arm in the water.

“I should maybe ha’ shouted then,” he said, rubbing a distracted hand through his hair. “But I couldna really believe it, ken?”

Then Fergus had taken a small boning knife in his right hand, reached down into the pool, and neatly opened the veins of his left elbow, blood blooming in a soft, dark cloud around the whiteness of his arm.

“I shouted then,” Jamie said. He closed his eyes, and scrubbed his hands hard over his face, as though trying to erase the memory of it.

He had run down the hill, grabbed Fergus, jerked him to his feet, and hit him.

“You hit him?”

“I did,” he said shortly. “He’s lucky I didna break his neck, the wee bastard.” Color had begun to rise in his face as he talked, and he pressed his lips tight together.

“Was this after the boys took Henri-Christian?” I asked, my memory of the conversation in the stable with Fergus vividly in mind. “I mean—”

“Aye, I ken what ye mean,” he interrupted. “And it was the day after the lads put Henri-Christian in the creek, aye. It wasna only that, though—not only all the trouble over the wee laddie being a dwarf, I mean.” He glanced at me, his face troubled.

“We talked. After I’d bound up his arm and brought him round. He said he’d been thinking of it for some time; the thing wi’ the bairn only pushed him into it.”

“But . . . how could he?” I said, distressed. “To leave Marsali, and the children—how?”

Jamie looked down, hands braced on his knees, and sighed. The window was open, and a soft breeze came in, lifting the hairs on the crown of his head like tiny flames.

“He thought they would do better without him,” he said flatly. “If he was dead, Marsali could wed again—find a man who could care for her and the weans. Provide for them. Protect wee Henri.”

“He thinks—thought—he couldn’t?”

Jamie glanced sharply at me.

“Sassenach,” he said, “he kens damn well he can’t.”

I drew breath to protest this, but bit my lip instead, finding no immediate rebuttal.

Jamie stood up and moved restlessly about the room, picking things up and putting them down.

“Would you do such a thing?” I asked, after a bit. “In the same circumstances, I mean.”

He paused for a moment, his back to me, hand on my hairbrush.

“No,” he said softly. “But it’s a hard thing for a man to live with.”

“Well, I see that . . .” I began, slowly, but he swung round to face me. His own face was strained, filled with a weariness that had little to do with lack of sleep.

“No, Sassenach,” he said. “Ye don’t.” He spoke gently, but with such a tone of despair in his voice that tears came to my eyes.

It was as much sheer physical weakness as emotional distress, but I knew that if I gave way to it, the end would be complete soggy disintegration, and no one needed that just now. I bit my lip hard and wiped my eyes with the edge of the sheet.

I heard the thump as he knelt down beside me, and I reached out blindly for him, pulling his head against my breast. He put his arms round me and sighed deeply, his breath warm on my skin through the linen of my shift. I stroked his hair with one trembling hand, and felt him give way suddenly, all the tension going out of him like water running from a jug.

I had the oddest feeling, then—as though the strength he had clung to had now been let go . . . and was flowing into me. My tenuous grip on my own body firmed as I held his, and my heart ceased wavering, taking up instead its normal solid, tireless beating.

The tears had retreated, though they were precariously near the surface. I traced the lines of his face with my fingers, ruddy bronze and lined with sun and care; the high forehead with its thick auburn brows, and the broad planes of his cheek, the long straight nose, straight as a blade. The closed eyes, slanted and mysterious with those odd lashes of his, blond at the root, so deep an auburn at the tips as to seem almost black.

“Don’t you know?” I said very softly, tracing the small, neat line of his ear. Tiny, stiff blond hairs sprouted in a tiny whorl from the tagus, tickling my finger. “Don’t any of you know? That it’s you. Not what you can give, or do, or provide. Just you.”

He took a deep, shuddering breath, and nodded, though he didn’t open his eyes.

“I know. I said that to him, to Fergus,” he said very softly. “Or at least I think I did. I said a terrible lot of things.”

They had knelt together by the spring, embracing, wet with blood and water, locked together as though he could hold Fergus to the earth, to his family, by force of will alone, and he had no notion at all what he had said, lost in the passion of the moment—until the end.

“You must continue, for their sakes—though you would not for your own,” he had whispered, Fergus’s face pressed into his shoulder, the black hair wet with sweat and water, cold against his cheek. “Tu comprends, mon enfant, mon fils? Comprends-tu?”

I felt his throat move as he swallowed.

“See, I kent ye were dying,” he said very softly. “I was sure ye’d be gone when I came back to the house, and I should be alone. I wasna speaking to Fergus then, I think, so much as to myself.”

He raised his head then, and looked at me through a blur of tears and laughter.

“Oh, God, Claire,” he said, “I would have been so angry, if ye’d died and left me!”

I wanted to laugh or cry, or both, myself—and had I still harbored regrets regarding the loss of eternal peace, I would have surrendered them now without hesitation.

“I didn’t,” I said, and touched his lip. “I won’t. Or at least I’ll try not.” I slid my hand behind his head and drew him back to me. He was a good deal larger and heavier than Henri-Christian, but I felt I could hold him forever, if necessary.

It was early afternoon, and the light just beginning to shift, slanting in through the tops of the west-facing windows so that the room filled with a clean, bright light that glowed on Jamie’s hair and the worn creamy linen of his shirt. I could feel the knobs at the top of his spine, and the yielding flesh in the narrow channel between shoulder blade and backbone.

“Where will you send them?” I asked, and tried to smooth the whorled hair of the cowlick on his crown.

“To Cross Creek, maybe—or to Wilmington,” he replied. His eyes were half-closed, watching the shadows of leaves flicker on the side of the armoire he had built me. “Wherever seems best for the printing trade.”

He shifted a little, tightening his grip on my buttocks, then frowned.

“Christ, Sassenach, ye havena got any bum left at all!”

“Well, never mind,” I said with resignation. “I’m sure that will grow back soon enough.”

65

MOMENT OF DECLARATION

JAMIE MET THEM near Woolam’s Mill, five men on horseback. Two were strangers; two were men from Salisbury that he knew—ex-Regulators named Green and Wherry; avid Whigs. The last was Richard Brown, whose face was cold, save for his eyes.

He silently cursed his love of conversation. If not for that, he would have parted from MacDonald as usual, at Coopersville. But they had been talking of poetry—poetry, for God’s sake!—and amusing each other in declamation. Now here he stood in the empty road, holding two horses, while MacDonald, whose guts were in disagreement with him, busied himself deep in the wood.

Amos Green tipped him a nod, and would have passed, but Kitman Wherry reined up; the strangers did likewise, staring curiously.

“Where are Thou bound, friend James?” Wherry, a Quaker, asked pleasantly. “Does Thee come to the meeting at Halifax? For Thee are welcome to ride with us, and that be so.”

Halifax. He felt a trickle of sweat run down the crease of his back. The meeting of the Committee of Correspondence to elect delegates to the Continental Congress.

“I am seeing a friend upon his road,” he replied courteously, with a nod toward MacDonald’s horse. “I will follow, though; perhaps I shall catch ye up along the way.” Fat chance of that, he thought, carefully not looking at Brown.

“I’d not be so sure of your welcome, Mr. Fraser.” Green spoke civilly enough, but with a certain coldness in his manner that made Wherry glance at him in surprise. “Not after what happened in Cross Creek.”

“Oh? And would ye see an innocent man burnt alive, or tarred and feathered?” The last thing he wished was an argument, but something must be said.

One of the strangers spat in the road.

“Not so innocent, if that’s Fogarty Simms you’re speakin’ of. Little Tory pissant,” he added as an afterthought.

“That’s the fellow,” Green said, and spat in agreement. “The committee in Cross Creek set out to teach him a lesson; seems Mr. Fraser here was in disagreement. Quite a scene it was, from what I hear,” he drawled, leaning back a little in his saddle to survey Jamie from his superior height. “Like I said, Mr. Fraser—you ain’t all that popular, right this minute.”

Wherry was frowning, glancing to and fro between Jamie and Green. “To save a man from tar and feathers, no matter what his politics, seems no more than common humanity,” he said sharply.

Brown laughed unpleasantly.

“Might seem so to you, I reckon. Not to other folk. You know a man by the company he keeps. And beyond that, there’s your auntie, eh?” he said, redirecting his speech to Jamie. “And the famous Mrs. MacDonald. I read that speech she gave—in the final edition of Simms’s newspaper,” he added, repeating the unpleasant laugh.

“My aunt’s guests have naught to do wi’ me,” Jamie said, striving for simple matter-of-factness.

“No? How ’bout your aunt’s husband—your uncle, would he be?”

“Duncan?” His incredulity plainly showed in his voice, for the strangers exchanged glances, and their manner relaxed a little. “No, he’s my aunt’s fourth husband—and a friend. Why d’ye speak of him?”

“Why, Duncan Innes is cheek-by-jowl with Farquard Campbell, and a good many other Loyalists. The two of ’em have been putting money enough to float a ship into pamphlets preachin’ reconciliation with Mother England. Surprised you didn’t know that, Mr. Fraser.”

Jamie was not merely surprised but thunderstruck at this revelation, but hid it.

“A man’s opinions are his own,” he said with a shrug. “Duncan must do as he likes, and I shall do the same.”

Wherry was nodding agreement with this, but the others were regarding him with expressions ranging from skepticism to hostility.

Wherry was not unaware of his companions’ responses.

“What is thy opinion, then, friend?” he asked politely.

Well, he’d known it was coming. Had now and then tried to imagine the circumstances of his declaration, in situations ranging from the vaingloriously heroic to the openly dangerous, but as usual in such matters, God’s sense of humor trumped all imagination. And so he found himself taking that final step into irrevocable and public commitment to the rebel cause—just incidentally being required to ally himself with a deadly enemy in the process—standing alone in a dusty road, with a uniformed officer of the Crown squatting in the bushes directly behind him, breeches round his ankles.

“I am for liberty,” he said, in a tone indicating mild astonishment that there could be any question regarding his position.

“Are you so?” Green looked hard at him, then lifted his chin in the direction of MacDonald’s horse, where MacDonald’s regimental sword hung from the saddle, gilt and tassels gleaming in the sun. “How come you to be in company with a redcoat, then?”

“He is a friend,” Jamie replied evenly.

“A redcoat?” One of the strangers reared back in his saddle as though stung by a bee. “How come redcoats here?” The man sounded flabbergasted, and looked hastily to and fro, as though expecting a company of the creatures to burst from the wood, muskets firing.

“Only the one, so far as I know,” Brown assured him. “Name’s MacDonald. He’s not a real soldier; retired on half-pay, works for the Governor.”

His companion didn’t seem noticeably reassured.

“What are you doing with this MacDonald?” he demanded of Jamie.

“As I said—he is a friend.” The attitude of the men had changed in an instant, from skepticism and mild hostility to open offense.

“He’s the Governor’s spy, is what he is,” Green declared flatly.

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