A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 67

   

A flicker of interest lit Roger’s face, the buried scholar coming to the surface.

“I did think the Gaelic was a very old form—even older than what you hear these days—I mean . . . now.” He flushed a little, realizing what he had said. I nodded, but didn’t say anything.

I remembered what it was like, that feeling that one was living in an elaborate make-believe. The feeling that reality existed in another time, another place. I remembered, and with a small shock, realized that it was now only memory—for me, time had shifted, as though my illness had pushed me through some final barrier.

Now was my time, reality the scrape of wood and slick of grease beneath my fingers, the arc of the sun that set the rhythm of my days, the nearness of Jamie. It was the other world, of cars and ringing telephones, of alarm clocks and mortgages, that seemed unreal and remote, the stuff of dreams.

Neither Roger nor Bree had made that transition, though. I could see it in the way they behaved, hear it in the echoes of their private conversations. Likely it was because they had each other; they could keep the other time alive, a small shared world between them. For me, the change was easier. I had lived here before, had come this time on purpose, after all—and I had Jamie. No matter what I told him of the future, he could never see it as other than a fairy tale. Our small shared world was built of different things.

I worried now and then about Bree and Roger, though. It was dangerous to treat the past as they sometimes did—as picturesque or curious, a temporary condition that could be escaped. There was no escape for them—whether it was love or duty, Jemmy held them both, a small redheaded anchor to the present. Better—or safer, at least—if they could wholly accept this time as theirs.

“The Indians have it, too,” I said to Roger. “The gralloch prayer, or something like it. That’s why I said I thought it older than the Church.”

He nodded, interested.

“I think that kind of thing is common to all primitive cultures—anyplace where men kill to eat.”

Primitive cultures. I caught my lower lip between my teeth, forbearing to point out that primitive or not, if his family were to survive, he personally would very likely be obliged to kill for them. But then I caught sight of his hand, idly rubbing at the dried blood between his fingers. He knew that already. “Yes, I did,” he’d said, when I’d told him he need not.

He looked up then, caught my eye, and gave me a faint, tired smile. He understood.

“I think maybe . . . it’s that killing without ceremony seems like murder,” he said slowly. “If you have the ceremony—some sort of ritual that acknowledges your necessity . . .”

“Necessity—and also sacrifice.” Jamie’s voice came softly from behind me, startling me. I turned my head sharply. He was standing in the shadow of the big red spruce; I wondered how long he’d been there.

“Didn’t hear you come out,” I said, turning up my face to be kissed as he came to me. “Has the Major gone?”

“No,” he said, and kissed my brow, one of the few clean spots left. “I’ve left him wi’ Sinclair for a bit. He’s exercised about the Committee of Safety, aye?” He grimaced, then turned to Roger.

“Aye, ye’ve the right of it,” he said. “Killing’s never a pleasant business, but it’s needful. If ye must spill blood, though, it’s right to take it wi’ thanks.”

Roger nodded, glancing at the mixture I was working, up to my elbows in spilled blood.

“Ye’ll tell me the proper words for the next time, then?”

“Not too late for this time, is it?” I said. Both men looked slightly startled. I raised an eyebrow at Jamie, then Roger. “I did say it wasn’t for the pig.”

Jamie’s eyes met mine with a glint of humor, but he nodded gravely.

“Well enough.”

At my direction, he took up the heavy jar of spices: the ground mixture of mace and marjoram, sage and pepper, parsley and thyme. Roger held out his hands, cupped, and Jamie poured them full. Then Roger rubbed the herbs slowly between his palms, showering the dusty, greenish crumbs into the barrel, their pungent scent mingling with the smell of the blood, as Jamie spoke the words slowly, in an ancient tongue come down from the days of the Norsemen.

“Say it in English,” I said, seeing from Roger’s face that while he spoke the words, he did not recognize them all.

“O Lord, bless the blood and the flesh of this the creature that You gave me,” Jamie said softly. He scooped a pinch of the herbs himself, and rubbed them between thumb and forefinger, in a rain of fragrant dust.

“Created by Your hand as You created man,

Life given for life.

That me and mine may eat with thanks for the gift,

That me and mine may give thanks for Your own sacrifice of blood and flesh,

Life given for life.”

The last crumbs of green and gray disappeared into the mixture under my hands, and the ritual of the sausage was complete.

“THAT WAS GOOD OF YE, Sassenach,” Jamie said, drying my clean, wet hands and arms with the towel afterward. He nodded toward the corner of the house, where Roger had disappeared to help with the rest of the butchering, looking somewhat more peaceful. “I did think to tell him before, but I couldna see how to do it.”

I smiled and moved close to him. It was a cold, windy day, and now that I had stopped working, the chill drove me closer to seek his warmth. He wrapped his arms around me, and I felt both the reassuring heat of his embrace, and the soft crackle of paper inside his shirt.

“What’s that?”

“Oh, a bittie letter Sinclair’s brought,” he said, drawing back a bit to reach into his shirt. “I didna want to open it while Donald was there, and didna trust him not to be reading it when I went out.”

“It’s not your letter, anyway,” I said, taking the smudged wad of paper from him. “It’s mine.”

“Oh, is it? Sinclair didna say, just handed it to me.”

“He would!” Not unusually, Ronnie Sinclair viewed me—all women, for that matter—as simply a minor appendage of a husband. I rather pitied the woman he might eventually induce to marry him.

I unfolded the note with some difficulty; it had been worn so long next to sweaty skin that the edges had frayed and stuck together.

The message inside was brief and cryptic, but unsettling. It had been scratched into the paper with something like a sharpened stick, using an ink that looked disturbingly like dried blood, though it was more likely berry juice.

“What does it say, Sassenach?” Seeing me frowning at the paper, Jamie moved to the side to look. I held it out to him.

Far down, in one corner, scratched in faint and tiny letters, as though the sender had hoped by this means to escape notice, was the word “Faydree.” Above, in bolder scratchings, the message read

YU

CUM

“IT MUST BE HER,” I said, shivering as I drew my shawl closer. It was cold in the surgery, despite the small brazier glowing in the corner, but Ronnie Sinclair and MacDonald were in the kitchen, drinking cider and waiting while the sausages boiled. I spread the note open on my surgery table, its minatory summons dark and peremptory above the timid signature. “Look. Who else could it be?”

“She canna write, surely?” Jamie objected. “Though I suppose it might be that someone wrote it for her,” he amended, frowning.

“No, she could have written this, I think.” Brianna and Roger had come into the surgery, too; Bree reached out and touched the ragged paper, one long finger gently tracing the staggered letters. “I taught her.”

“You did?” Jamie looked surprised. “When?”

“When I stayed at River Run. When you and Mama went to find Roger.” Her wide mouth pressed thin for a moment; it wasn’t an occasion she wished much to remember.

“I taught her the alphabet; I meant to teach her to read and write. We did all the letters—she knew how they sounded, and she could draw them. But then one day she said she couldn’t anymore, and she wouldn’t sit down with me.” She glanced up, a troubled frown between her thick, red brows. “I thought maybe Aunt Jocasta found out, and stopped her.”

“More likely Ulysses. Jocasta would have stopped you, lass.” Jamie’s frown matched hers as he glanced at me. “Ye do think it’s Phaedre, then? My aunt’s body slave?”

I shook my head, and bit one corner of my lip in doubt.

“The slaves at River Run do say her name like that—Faydree. And I certainly don’t know anyone else by that name.”

Jamie had questioned Ronnie Sinclair—casually, to give no occasion for alarm or gossip—but the cooper knew no more than he had told me: the note had been handed to him by a tinker, with the simple direction that it was “for the healer.”

I leaned over the table, lifting a candle high to look at the note once more. The “F” of the signature had been made with a hesitant, repeated stroke—more than one try before the writer had committed herself to signing it. The more evidence, I thought, of its origin. I didn’t know whether it was against the law in North Carolina to teach a slave to read or write, but it was certainly discouraged. While there were marked exceptions—slaves educated to their owners’ ends, like Ulysses himself—it was on the whole a dangerous skill, and one a slave would go some way to conceal.

“She wouldn’t have risked sending word like this, unless it was a serious matter,” Roger said. He stood behind Bree, one hand on her shoulder, looking down at the note she held flattened on the table. “But what?”

“Have you heard from your aunt lately?” I asked Jamie, but I knew the answer before he shook his head. Any word from River Run that reached the Ridge would have been a matter of public knowledge within hours.

We had not gone to the Gathering at Mt. Helicon this year; there was too much to do on the Ridge and Jamie wished to avoid the heated politics involved. Still, Jocasta and Duncan had meant to be there. Anything wrong would surely have been a matter of general gossip, which would have reached us long since.

“So it is not only serious, but a private matter to the slave, too,” Jamie said. “Otherwise, my aunt would have written, or Duncan sent word.” His two stiff fingers tapped once, softly, against his thigh.

We stood around the table, staring at the note as though it were a small white slab of dyn**ite. The scent of boiling sausages filled the cold air, warm and comforting.

“Why you?” Roger asked, looking up at me. “Do you think it might be a medical matter? If she were ill, say—or pregnant?”

“Not illness,” I said. “Too urgent.” It was a week’s ride to River Run at least—in good weather, and barring accident. Heaven knew how long it had taken the note to make its way up to Fraser’s Ridge.

“But if she was pregnant? Maybe.” Brianna pursed her lips, still frowning at the paper. “I think she thinks of Mama as a friend. She’d tell you before she’d tell Aunt Jocasta, I think.”

I nodded, but reluctantly. Friendship was too strong a word; people situated as Phaedre and I could not be friends. Liking was constrained by too many things—suspicion, mistrust, the vast chasm of difference that slavery imposed.

And yet there was a certain feeling of sympathy between us, that much was true. I had worked with her, side by side, planting herbs and harvesting them, making simples for the stillroom, explaining their uses. We had buried a dead girl together and plotted to protect a runaway slave accused of her murder. She had a certain talent with the sick, did Phaedre, and some knowledge of herbs. Any minor matter, she could deal with herself. But something like an unexpected pregnancy . . .

“What does she think I could do, though, I wonder?” I was thinking out loud, and my fingertips felt cold in contemplation. An unexpected child born to a slave would be of no concern to an owner—to the contrary, it would be welcomed as additional property; but I had heard stories of slave women who killed a child at birth, rather than have the babe brought up in slavery. Phaedre was a house slave, though, well-treated, and Jocasta did not separate slave families, I knew that. If it were that, Phaedre’s situation was surely not so dire—and yet, who was I to judge?

I blew out a cloud of smoky breath, uncertain.

“I just can’t see why—I mean, she couldn’t possibly expect that I’d help her to get rid of a child. And for anything else . . . why me? There are midwives and healers much closer. It just doesn’t make sense.”

“What if—” Brianna said, and stopped. She pursed her lips in speculation, looking from me to Jamie and back. “What if,” she said carefully, “she was pregnant, but the father was . . . someone it shouldn’t be?”

A wary but humorous speculation sprang up in Jamie’s eyes, increasing the resemblance between him and Brianna.

“Who, lass?” he said. “Farquard Campbell?”

I laughed out loud at the thought, and Brianna snorted with mirth, white wisps of breath floating round her head. The notion of the very upright—and quite elderly—Farquard Campbell seducing a house slave was . . .

“Well, no,” Brianna said. “Though he does have all those children. But I just thought suddenly—what if it was Duncan?”

Jamie cleared his throat, and avoided catching my eye. I bit my lip, feeling my face start to go red. Duncan had confessed his chronic impotence to Jamie before Duncan’s wedding to Jocasta—but Brianna didn’t know.

“Oh, I shouldna think it likely,” Jamie said, sounding a trifle choked. He coughed, and fanned smoke from the brazier away from his face. “What gives ye that notion, lass?”

“Nothing about Duncan,” she assured him. “But Aunt Jocasta is—well, old. And you know what men can be like.”

“No, what?” asked Roger blandly, making me cough with the effort to suppress a laugh.

Jamie eyed her with a certain amount of cynicism.

“A good deal better than you do, a nighean. And while I wouldna wager much on some men, I think I should feel safe in laying odds that Duncan Innes isna the man to be breaking his marriage vows with his wife’s black slave.”

I made a small noise, and Roger lifted one eyebrow at me.

“Are you all right?”

“Fine,” I said, sounding strangled. “Just—fine.” I put a corner of the shawl over my no-doubt purple face and coughed ostentatiously. “It’s . . . smoky in here, isn’t it?”

“Maybe so,” Brianna conceded, addressing Jamie. “It might not be that at all. It’s just that Phaedre sent the note to ‘the healer,’ probably because she didn’t want to use Mama’s name, in case anybody saw the note before it got here. I just thought, maybe it wasn’t really Mama she wants—maybe it’s you.”

That sobered both Jamie and me, and we glanced at each other. It was a definite possibility, and one that hadn’t occurred to either of us.

“She couldn’t send a note direct to you without rousing all kinds of curiosity,” Bree went on, frowning at the note. “But she could say ‘the healer’ without putting a name on it. And she’d know that if Mama came, you’d probably come with her, at this time of year. Or if you didn’t, Mama could send for you openly.”

“It’s a thought,” Jamie said slowly. “But why in God’s name might she want me?”

“Only one way to find out,” said Roger, practical. He looked at Jamie. “Most of the outside work is done; the crops and the hay are in, the slaughtering’s finished. We can manage here, if you want to go.”

Jamie stood still for a moment, frowning in thought, then crossed to the window and raised the sash. A cold wind blew into the room, and Bree pinned the fluttering note to the table to keep it from taking wing. The coals in the small brazier smoked and flamed higher, and the bunches of dried herbs rustled uneasily overhead.

Jamie thrust his head out the window and breathed in deeply, eyes closed like one savoring the bouquet of fine wine.

“Cold and clear,” he announced, drawing in his head and closing the window. “Clear weather for three days, at least. We could be off the mountain by that time, and we ride briskly.” He smiled at me; the tip of his nose was red with the cold. “In the meantime, d’ye think those sausages are ready yet?”

72

BETRAYALS

A SLAVE I DIDN’T RECOGNIZE opened the door to us, a broad-built woman in a yellow turban. She eyed us severely, but Jamie gave her no chance to speak, pushing rudely past her into the hall.

“He’s Mrs. Cameron’s nephew,” I felt obliged to explain to her, as I followed him.

“I can see that,” she muttered, in a lilt that came from Barbados. She glared after him, making it evident that she detected a family resemblance in terms of high-handedness, as well as physique.

“I’m his wife,” I added, overcoming the reflexive urge to shake her hand, and bowing slightly instead. “Claire Fraser. Nice to meet you.”

She blinked, disconcerted, but before she could reply, I had whisked past her, following Jamie toward the small drawing room where Jocasta was inclined to sit in the afternoons.

The door to the drawing room was closed, and as Jamie set his hand on the knob, a sharp yelp came from inside—the prelude to a barrage of frenzied barking as the door swung wide.

Stopped in his tracks, Jamie paused, hand on the door, frowning at the small brown bundle of fur that leaped to and fro at his feet, eyes bulging in hysteria as it barked its head off.

“What is that?” he said, edging his way into the room as the creature made abortive dashes at his boots, still yapping.

“It’s a wee dog, what d’ye think?” Jocasta said acerbically. She lifted herself from her chair, frowning in the direction of the noise. “Sheas, Samson.”

“Samson? Oh, to be sure. The hair.” Smiling despite himself, Jamie squatted and extended a closed fist toward the dog. Throttling back to a low growl, the dog extended a suspicious nose toward his knuckles.

“Where’s Delilah?” I asked, edging into the room behind him.

“Ah, ye’ve come, as well, Claire?” Jocasta’s face swiveled in my direction, lit by a smile. “A rare treat, to have the both of ye. I dinna suppose Brianna or the bittie lad have come along—no, I would have heard them.” Dismissing that, she sat down again, and waved toward the hearth.

“As for Delilah, the lazy creature’s asleep by the fire; I can hear her snoring.”

Delilah was a large whitish hound of indeterminate breed but plentiful skin; it drooped around her in folds of relaxation as she lay on her back, paws curled over a freckled belly. Hearing her name, she snorted briefly, opened one eye a crack, then closed it again.

“I see ye’ve had a few changes since I was last here,” Jamie observed, rising to his feet. “Where is Duncan? And Ulysses?”

“Gone. Looking for Phaedre.” Jocasta had lost weight; the high MacKenzie cheekbones stood out sharp, and her skin looked thin and creased.

“Looking for her?” Jamie glanced sharply at her. “What’s become of the lass?”

“Run away.” She spoke with her usual self-possession, but her voice was bleak.

“Run away? But—are you sure?” Her workbox had been upset, the contents spilled on the floor. I knelt and began to tidy the confusion, picking up the scattered reels of thread.

“Weel, she’s gone,” Jocasta said with some acerbity. “Either she’s run, or someone’s stolen her. And I canna think who would have the gall or the skill to snatch her from my house, and no one seeing.”

I exchanged a quick glance with Jamie, who shook his head, frowning. Jocasta was rubbing a fold of her skirt between thumb and forefinger; I could see small worn spots in the nap of the fabric near her hand, where she had done it repeatedly. Jamie saw it, too.

“When did she go, Auntie?” he asked quietly.

“Four weeks past. Duncan and Ulysses have been gone for two.”

That fitted well enough with the arrival of the note. No telling how long before her disappearance the note had actually been written, given the vagaries of delivery.

“I see Duncan took pains to leave ye some company,” Jamie observed. Samson had abandoned his watchdog role, and was sniffing assiduously at Jamie’s boots. Delilah rolled onto her side with a luxurious groan and opened two luminous brown eyes, through which she regarded me with utmost tranquillity.

“Oh, aye, they’re that.” Half-grudgingly, Jocasta leaned out from her chair and located the hound’s head, scratching behind the long, floppy ears. “Though Duncan meant them for my protection, or so he said.”

“A sensible precaution,” Jamie said mildly. It was; we had had no further word of Stephen Bonnet, nor had Jocasta heard the voice of the masked man again. But lacking the concrete reassurance of a corpse, either one could presumably pop up at any time.

“Why would the lassie run, Aunt?” Jamie asked. His tone was still mild, but persistent.

Jocasta shook her head, lips compressed.

“I dinna ken at all, Nephew.”

“Nothing’s happened of late? Nothing out of the ordinary?” he pressed.

“Do ye not think I should have said at once?” she asked sharply. “No. I woke late one morning, and couldna hear her about my room. There was nay tea by my bed, and the fire had gone out; I could smell the ashes. I called for her, and there was no answer. Gone, she was—vanished without a trace.” She tilted her head toward him with a grim sort of “so there” expression.

I raised a brow at Jamie and touched the pocket I wore at my waist, containing the note. Ought we to tell her?

He nodded, and I drew the note from my pocket, unfolding it on the arm of her chair, as he explained.

Jocasta’s look of displeasure faded into one of puzzled astonishment.

“Whyever should she send for you, a nighean?” she asked, turning to me.

“I don’t know—perhaps she was with child?” I suggested. “Or had contracted a—disease of some sort?” I didn’t want to suggest syphilis openly, but it was a possibility. If Manfred had infected Mrs. Sylvie, and she had then passed the infection on to one or more of her customers in Cross Creek, who then had visited River Run . . . but that would mean, perhaps, that Phaedre had had some kind of relationship with a white man. That was something a slave woman would go to great lengths to keep secret.

Jocasta, no fool, was rapidly coming to similar conclusions, though her thoughts ran parallel to mine.

“A child, that would be no great matter,” she said, flicking a hand. “But if she had a lover . . . aye,” she said thoughtfully. “She might have gone off with a lover. But then, why send for you?”

Jamie was growing restive, impatient with so much unprovable speculation.

“Perhaps she might think ye meant to sell her, Aunt, if ye discovered such a thing?”

“To sell her?”

Jocasta broke out laughing. Not her usual social laughter, nor even the sound of genuine amusement; this was shocking—loud and crude, almost vicious in its hilarity. It was her brother Dougal’s laugh, and the blood ran momentarily cold in my veins.

I glanced at Jamie, to find him looking down at her, face gone blank. Not in puzzlement; it was the mask he wore to hide strong feeling. So he’d heard that grisly echo, too.

She seemed unable to stop. Her hands clutched the carved arms of her chair and she leaned forward, face turning red, gasping for breath between those unnerving deep guffaws.

Delilah rolled onto her belly and uttered a low “wuff” of unease, looking anxiously round, unsure what the matter was, but convinced that something wasn’t right. Samson had backed under the settee, growling.

Jamie reached out and took her by the shoulder—not gently.

“Be still, Aunt,” he said. “Ye’re frightening your wee dogs.”

She stopped, abruptly. There was no sound but the faint wheeze of her breathing, nearly as unnerving as the laughter. She sat still, bolt upright in her chair, hands on the arms, the blood ebbing slowly from her face and her eyes gone dark and bright, fixed as though on something that only she could see.

“Sell her,” she murmured, and her mouth creased as though the laughter were about to break out of her again. She didn’t laugh, though, but stood up suddenly. Samson yapped once, in astonishment.

“Come with me.”

She was through the door before either of us could say anything. Jamie lifted an eyebrow at me, but motioned me through the door before him.

She knew the house intimately; she made her way down the hall toward the door to the stables with no more than an occasional touch of the wall to keep her bearings, walking as fast as though she could see. Outside, though, she paused, feeling with one extended foot for the edge of the brick-laid path.

Jamie stepped up beside her and took her firmly by the elbow.

“Where d’ye wish to go?” he asked, a certain resignation in his tone.

“To the carriage barn.” The peculiar laughter had left her, but her face was still flushed, her strong chin lifted with an air of defiance. Who was she defying? I wondered.

The carriage barn was shadowed and tranquil, dust motes drifting gold in the stir of air from the opened doors. A wagon, a carriage, a sledge, and the elegant two-wheeled trap sat like large, placid beasts on the straw-covered floor. I glanced at Jamie, whose mouth curled slightly as he looked at me; we had taken temporary refuge in that carriage, during the chaos of Jocasta’s wedding to Duncan, almost four years before.

Jocasta paused in the doorway, one hand braced on the jamb and breathing deeply, as though orienting herself. She made no move to enter the barn herself, though, but instead nodded toward the depths of the building.

“Along the back wall, an mhic mo peather. There are boxes there; I want the large chest made of wickerwork, the one as high as your knee, with a rope tied round it.”

I had not really noticed during our earlier excursion into the carriage barn, but the back wall was stacked high with boxes, crates, and bundles, piled two and three deep. With such explicit direction, though, Jamie made short work of finding the desired container, and dragged it out into the light, covered with dust and bits of straw.

“Shall I carry it into the house for ye, Auntie?” he asked, rubbing a finger under a twitching nose.

She shook her head, stooping and feeling for the knot of the rope that bound it.

“No. I shallna have it the house. I swore I should not.”

“Let me.” I laid a hand on hers to still her fumbling, then took charge of the knot myself. Whoever had tied it had been thorough, but not skilled; I had it loose within a minute, and the catch undone.

The wicker chest was filled with pictures. Bundles of loose drawings, done in pencil, ink, and charcoal, neatly tied with faded ribbons of colored silk. Several bound sketchbooks. And a number of paintings: a few large unframed squares, and two smaller boxes of miniatures, all framed, stacked on edge like a deck of cards.

I heard Jocasta sigh, above me, and looked up. She stood still, eyes closed, and I could tell that she was inhaling deeply, breathing in the smell of the pictures—the smell of oils and charcoal, gesso, paper, canvas, linseed and turpentine, a full-bodied ghost that floated out of its wicker casket, transparently vivid against the background scents of straw and dust, wood and wicker.

Her fingers curled, thumb rubbing against the tips of her other fingers, unconsciously rolling a brush between them. I had seen Bree do that, now and then, looking at something she wanted to paint. Jocasta sighed again, then opened her eyes and knelt down beside me, reaching in to run her fingers lightly over the cache of buried art, searching.

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