A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 68

   

“The oils,” she said. “Fetch those out.”

I had already taken out the boxes of miniatures. Jamie squatted on the other side of the casket, lifting the bundles of loose drawings and the sketchbooks, so that I could pull out the larger oils, laid on edge along the side of the container.

“A portrait,” she said, head on one side to listen to the flat, hollow sound as I laid each one against the side of the wicker box. “An old man.”

It was plain which one she meant. Two of the large canvases were landscapes, three, portraits. I recognized Farquard Campbell, much younger than his present age, and what must be a self-portrait of Jocasta herself, done perhaps twenty years before. I had no time to look at these, though, interesting as they were.

The third portrait looked to have been done much more recently than the others, and showed the effects of Jocasta’s failing eyesight.

The edges were blurred, the colors muddy, shapes just slightly distorted, so that the elderly gentleman who looked out of the clouded oil seemed somehow disturbing, as though he belonged to some race not quite human, in spite of the orthodoxy of his wig and high white stock.

He wore a black coat and waistcoat, old-fashioned in style, with the folds of a tartan plaid draped over his shoulder, caught up with a brooch whose golden gleam was echoed by the ornamental knurl atop the dirk the old man held, his fingers bent and gnarled with arthritis. I recognized that dirk.

“So that is Hector Cameron.” Jamie recognized it, too. He looked at the painting with fascination.

Jocasta reached out a hand, touching the surface of the paint as though to identify it by touch.

“Aye, that’s him,” she said dryly. “Never saw him in life, did ye, Nephew?”

Jamie shook his head.

“Once perhaps—but I was nay more than a babe at the time.” His gaze traced the old man’s features with deep interest, as though looking for clues to Hector Cameron’s character. Such clues were evident; the man’s force of personality fairly vibrated from the canvas.

He had strong bones, the man in the portrait, though the flesh hung from them in the infirmity of age. The eyes were still sharp, but one was half-closed—it might have been only a drooping eyelid caused by a small stroke, but the impression was that of an habitual manner of looking at the world; one eye always narrowed in cynical appraisal.

Jocasta was searching through the contents of the chest, fingers darting lightly here and there, like hunting moths. She touched one box of miniatures, and lifted it with a small grunt of satisfaction.

She ran a finger slowly along the edge of each miniature, and I saw that the frames were patterned differently; squares and ovals, smooth gilded wood, tarnished silver laid in a rope border, another studded with tiny rosettes. She found one she recognized, and plucked it from the box, handing it absently to me as she went back to her search.

The miniature was also of Hector Cameron—but this portrait done many years before the other. Dark wavy hair lay loose on his shoulders, a small ornamental braid down one side sporting two grouse’s feathers, in the ancient Highland style. The same solid bones were there, but the flesh was firm; he had been handsome, Hector Cameron.

It was an habitual expression; whether by inclination or accident of birth, the right eye was narrowed here, as well, though not as much as in the older portrait.

My scrutiny was interrupted by Jocasta, who laid a hand on my arm.

“Is this the lass?” she asked, thrusting another of the miniatures at me.

I took it, puzzled, and gasped when I turned it over. It was Phaedre, done when the girl was in her early teens. Her usual cap was missing; she wore a simple kerchief bound over her hair that threw the bones of her face into bold relief. Hector Cameron’s bones.

Jocasta nudged the box of paintings with her foot.

“Give those to your daughter, Nephew. Tell her to paint them over—it would be shame to waste the canvas.” Without waiting for response, she set off back toward the house alone, hesitating only briefly at the fork in the path, steering by scent and memory.

THERE WAS A PROFOUND silence in the wake of Jocasta’s departure, broken only by the singing of a mockingbird in a nearby pine.

“I will be damned,” Jamie said at last, taking his eyes off the figure of his aunt as she vanished into the house, alone. He didn’t look shocked, so much as deeply bemused. “Did the girl know, d’ye think?”

“Almost certainly,” I said. “The slaves would surely have known; some must have been here when she was born; they’d have told her, if she wasn’t quick enough to have worked it out herself—and I certainly think she is.”

He nodded, and leaned back against the wall of the carriage house, looking meditatively down his long nose at the wicker chest of paintings. I felt a strong reluctance to go back to the house, myself. The buildings were beautiful, a mellow gold in the late-fall sun, and the grounds were peaceful, well-ordered. The sound of cheerful voices came from the kitchen garden, several horses grazed contentedly in the paddock nearby, and far away down the distant silver river, a small boat came down, a four-oared piretta, its oars stroking the surface, brisk and graceful as a water strider.

“Where every prospect pleases, and only man is vile,” I remarked. Jamie gave me a brief glance of incomprehension, then returned to his thoughts.

So Jocasta would by no means sell Phaedre, and thought Phaedre knew it. I wondered exactly why. Because she felt some duty to the girl, as the child of her husband? Or as a subtle form of revenge on that long-dead husband, keeping his illegitimate daughter as a slave, a body servant? I supposed that the two were not entirely exclusive, come to that—I had known Jocasta long enough to realize that her motives were rarely simple.

There was a chill in the air, with the sun low in the sky. I leaned against the carriage house beside Jamie, feeling the stored warmth of the sun soak from its bricks into my body, and wished that we could step into the old farm wagon and drive posthaste back to the Ridge, leaving River Run to deal with its own legacies of bitterness.

But the note was in my pocket, crackling when I moved. YU CUM. Not an appeal I could dismiss. But I had come—and now what?

Jamie straightened suddenly, looking toward the river. I looked, too, and saw that the boat had drawn into the dock there. A tall figure sprang up onto the dock, then turned to help another out of the boat. The second man was shorter, and moved in an odd fashion, off-kilter and out of rhythm.

“Duncan,” I said at once, seeing this. “And Ulysses. They’re back!”

“Aye,” Jamie said, taking my arm and starting toward the house. “But they havena found her.”

RUNAWAY or STOLEN on the 31st of October, a Negro Wench, twenty-two years of Age, above middling Height and comely in Appearance, with a Scar on the left Forearm in the shape of an Oval, caused by a Burn. Dressed in an indigo Gown, with a green-striped Apron, white Cap, brown Stockings, and leather Shoes. No missing Teeth. Known by the Name of “FAYDREE.” Communicate Particulars to D. Innes, River Run Plantation, in the vicinity of Cross Creek. Substantial Reward will be paid for good Information.

I smoothed the crumpled broadsheet, which also sported a crude drawing of Phaedre, looking vaguely cross-eyed. Duncan had emptied his pockets and dropped a handful of these sheets on the table in the hall when he had come in the afternoon before, exhausted and dispirited. They had, he said, posted the bills in every tavern and public house between Campbelton and Wilmington, making inquiries as they went—but to no avail. Phaedre had vanished like the dew.

“May I have the marmalade, please?” Jamie and I were taking breakfast alone, neither Jocasta nor Duncan having appeared this morning. I was enjoying it, despite the gloomy atmosphere. Breakfast at River Run was normally a lavish affair, extending even to a pot of real tea—Jocasta must be paying her pet smuggler an absolute fortune for it; there was none to be found between Virginia and Georgia, to the best of my knowledge.

Jamie was frowning at another of the broadsheets, deep in thought. He didn’t take his eyes off it, but his hand roamed vaguely over the table, settled on the cream jug, and passed it across to me.

Ulysses, showing little sign of his long journey beyond a certain heaviness of the eyes, stepped silently forward, took the cream jug, replaced it neatly, and set the pot of marmalade beside my plate.

“Thank you,” I said, and he graciously inclined his head.

“Will you require further bloaters, madam?” he inquired. “Or more ham?”

I shook my head, my mouth being full of toast, and he glided off, picking up a loaded tray by the door, this presumably intended for Jocasta, Duncan, or both.

Jamie watched him go, with a sort of abstracted expression.

“I have been thinking, Sassenach,” he said.

“I would never have guessed it,” I assured him. “About what?”

He looked momentarily surprised, but then smiled, realizing.

“Ye kent what I told ye, Sassenach, about Brianna and the widow McCallum? That she wouldna scruple long to act, if Roger Mac were to be taking heed where he shouldn’t?”

“I do,” I said.

He nodded, as though verifying something to himself.

“Well, the lass comes by it honestly enough. The MacKenzies of Leoch are proud as Lucifer, all of them, and black jealous with it. Ye dinna want to cross one—still less to betray one.”

I regarded him warily over my cup of tea, wondering where this was leading.

“I thought their defining trait was charm, allied with cunning. And as for betrayal, both your uncles were past hands at it.”

“The two go together, do they not?” he asked, reaching across to dip a spoon in the marmalade. “Ye must beguile someone before ye can betray them, no? And I am inclined to think that a man who would betray is all the quicker to resent betrayal himself. Or a woman,” he added delicately.

“Oh, really,” I said, sipping with pleasure. “Jocasta, you mean.” Put in those terms, I could see it. The MacKenzies of Leoch had powerful personalities—I did wonder what Jamie’s maternal grandfather, the notorious Red Jacob, had been like—and I’d noted small commonalities of behavior between Jocasta and her elder brothers before.

Colum and Dougal had had an unshakable loyalty to each other—but to no one else. And Jocasta was essentially alone, separated from her family since her first marriage at fifteen. Being a woman, it was natural that the charm should be more apparent in her—but that didn’t mean the cunning wasn’t there. Nor yet the jealousy, I supposed.

“Well, plainly she knew that Hector betrayed her—and I do wonder whether she painted that portrait of Phaedre as a means of indicating to the world at large that she knew it, or merely as a private message to Hector—but what has that got to do with the present situation?”

He shook his head.

“Not Hector,” he said. “Duncan.”

I stared at him, absolutely open-mouthed. All other considerations aside, Duncan was impotent; he had told Jamie so, on the eve of his wedding to Jocasta. Jamie smiled crookedly, and reaching across the table, put a thumb under my chin and pushed my mouth gently shut.

“It’s a thought, Sassenach, is all I’m saying. But I think I must go and have a word wi’ the man. Will ye come?”

DUNCAN WAS IN the small room he used as a private office, tucked away above the stables, along with the tiny rooms that housed the grooms and stable-lads. He was slumped in a chair, looking hopelessly at the untidy stacks of papers and undusted ledgers that had accumulated on every horizontal surface.

He looked desperately tired, and a great deal older than when I had last seen him, at Flora MacDonald’s barbecue. His gray hair was thinning, and when he turned to greet us, the light of the sun shone across his face, and I saw the thin line of the harelip scar Roger had mentioned, hidden in the luxuriant growth of his mustache.

Something vital seemed to have gone out of him, and when Jamie delicately broached the subject upon which we had come, he made no attempt at all to deny it. In fact, he seemed glad, rather than otherwise, to have it out.

“Ye did lie wi’ the lass, then, Duncan?” Jamie asked directly, wanting to have the fact established.

“Well, no,” he said vaguely. “I should have liked to, o’ course—but what wi’ her sleeping in Jo’s dressing room . . .” At this reference to his wife, his face flushed a deep, unhealthy red.

“I mean, ye’ve had carnal knowledge of the woman, have ye not?” Jamie said, keeping a grip on his patience.

“Oh, aye.” He gulped. “Aye. I did.”

“How?” I asked bluntly.

The flush deepened, to such a degree that I feared he might have an apoplexy on the spot. He breathed like a grampus for a bit, though, and finally, his complexion began to fade back to something like normal.

“She fed me,” he said at last, rubbing a hand tiredly across his eyes. “Every day.”

Jocasta rose late and breakfasted in her sitting room, attended by Ulysses, to make plans for the day. Duncan, who had risen before dawn every day of his life, usually in the expectation of a dry crust or at most, a bit of drammach—oatmeal mixed with water—woke now to find a steaming pot of tea beside his bed, accompanied by a bowl of creamy parritch, liberally garnished with honey and cream, toast drenched in butter, eggs fried with ham.

“Sometimes a wee fish, rolled in cornmeal, crisp and sweet,” he added, with mournful reminiscence.

“Well, that’s verra seductive, to be sure, Duncan,” Jamie said, not without sympathy. “A man’s vulnerable when he’s hungry.” He gave me a wry glance. “But still . . .”

Duncan had been grateful to Phaedre for her kindness, and had—being a man, after all—admired her beauty, though in a purely disinterested sort of way, he assured us.

“To be sure,” Jamie said with marked skepticism. “What happened?”

Duncan had dropped the butter, was the answer, whilst struggling to butter his toast one-handed. Phaedre had hastened to retrieve the pieces of the fallen dish, and then hurried to fetch a cloth and wipe the streaks of butter from the floor—and then from Duncan’s chest.

“Well, I was in my nightshirt,” he murmured, starting to go red again. “And she was—she had—” His hand rose and made vague motions in the vicinity of his chest, which I took to indicate that Phaedre’s bodice had displayed her bosom to particular advantage while in such close proximity to him.

“And?” Jamie prompted ruthlessly.

And, it appeared, Duncan’s anatomy had taken note of the fact—a circumstance admitted with such strangulated modesty that we could barely hear him.

“But I thought you couldn’t—” I began.

“Oh, I couldna,” he assured me hastily. “Only at night, like, dreaming. But not waking, not since I had the accident. Perhaps it was being so early i’ the morning; my c*ck thought I was still asleep.”

Jamie made a low Scottish noise expressing considerable doubt as to this supposition, but urged Duncan to continue, with a certain amount of impatience.

Phaedre had taken notice in her turn, it transpired.

“She was only sorry for me,” Duncan said frankly. “I could tell as much. But she put her hand on me, soft. So soft,” he repeated, almost inaudibly.

He had been sitting on his bed—and had gone on sitting there in dumb amazement, as she took away the breakfast tray, lifted his nightshirt, climbed on the bed with her skirts neatly tucked above her round brown thighs, and with great tenderness and gentleness, had welcomed back his manhood.

“Once?” Jamie demanded. “Or did ye keep doing it?”

Duncan put his head in his hand, a fairly eloquent admission, under the circumstances.

“How long did this . . . er . . . liaison go on?” I asked more gently.

Two months, perhaps three. Not every day, he hastened to add—only now and then. And they had been very careful.

“I wouldna ever have wanted to shame Jo, ken,” he said very earnestly. “And I kent weel I shouldna be doing it, ’twas a great sin, and yet I couldna keep from—” He broke, off, swallowing. “It’s all my fault, what’s happened, let the sin be on me! Och, my puir darling lass . . .”

He fell silent, shaking his head like an old, sad, flea-ridden dog. I felt terribly sorry for him, regardless of the morality of the situation. The collar of his shirt was turned awkwardly under, strands of his grizzled hair trapped beneath his coat; I gently pulled them out and straightened it, though he took no heed.

“D’ye think she’s dead, Duncan?” Jamie asked quietly, and Duncan blanched, his skin going the same gray as his hair.

“I canna bring myself to think it, Mac Dubh,” he said, and his eyes filled with tears. “And—and yet . . .”

Jamie and I exchanged uneasy glances. And yet. Phaedre had taken no money when she disappeared. How could a female slave travel very far without detection, advertised and hunted, lacking a horse, money, or anything beyond a pair of leather shoes? A man might possibly make it to the mountains, and manage to survive in the woods, if he were tough and resourceful—but a girl? A house slave?

Someone had taken her—or else she was dead.

None of us wanted to voice that thought, though. Jamie heaved a great sigh, and taking a clean handkerchief from his sleeve, put it in Duncan’s hand.

“I shall pray for her, Duncan—wherever she may be. And for you, a charaid . . . and for you.”

Duncan nodded, not looking up, the handkerchief clutched tight. It was clear that any attempt at comfort would be futile, and so at last we left him sitting there, in his tiny, landlocked room, so far from the sea.

We made our way back slowly, not speaking, but holding hands, feeling the strong need to touch each other. The day was bright, but there was a storm coming up; ragged clouds were streaming in from the east, and the breeze came in gusts that whirled my skirts about like a twirling parasol.

The wind was less on the back terrace, sheltered as it was by its waist-high wall. Looking up from here, I could just see the window that Phaedre had been looking out of when I’d found her there, the night of the barbecue.

“She told me that something wasn’t right,” I said. “The night of Mrs. MacDonald’s barbecue. Something was troubling her then.”

Jamie shot me an interested glance.

“Oh, aye? But she didna mean Duncan, surely?” he objected.

“I know.” I shrugged helplessly. “She didn’t seem to know what was wrong herself—she just kept saying, ‘Something ain’t right.’”

Jamie took a deep breath and blew it out again, shaking his head.

“In a way, I suppose I hope that whatever it was, it had to do with her going. For if it wasna to do with her and Duncan . . .” He trailed off, but I had no difficulty in finishing the thought.

“Then it wasn’t to do with your aunt, either,” I said. “Jamie—do you really think Jocasta might have had her killed?”

It should have sounded ridiculous, spoken aloud like that. The horrible thing was that it didn’t.

Jamie made that small, shrugging gesture he used when very uncomfortable about something, as though his coat was too tight.

“Had she her sight, I should think it—possible, at least,” he said. “To be betrayed by Hector—and she blamed him already, for the death of her girls. So her daughters are dead, but there is Phaedre, alive, every day, a constant reminder of insult. And then to be betrayed yet again, by Duncan, with Hector’s daughter?”

He rubbed a knuckle under his nose. “I should think any woman of spirit might be . . . moved.”

“Yes,” I said, imagining what I might think or feel under the same circumstances. “Certainly. But to murder—that is what we’re talking about, isn’t it? Couldn’t she simply have sold the girl?”

“No,” he said thoughtfully. “She couldn’t. We made provision to safeguard her money when she wed—but not the property. Duncan is the owner of River Run—and all that goes with it.”

“Including Phaedre.” I felt hollow, and a little sick.

“As I said. Had she her sight, I shouldna be astonished at all by the thought. As it is . . .”

“Ulysses,” I said, with certainty, and he nodded reluctantly. Ulysses was not only Jocasta’s eyes, but her hands, as well. I didn’t think he would have killed Phaedre at his mistress’s command—but if Jocasta had poisoned the girl, for instance, Ulysses might certainly have helped to dispose of the body.

I felt an odd air of unreality—even with what I knew of the MacKenzie family, calmly discussing the possibility of Jamie’s aged aunt having murdered someone . . . and yet . . . I did know the MacKenzies.

“If my aunt had any hand at all in the matter,” Jamie said. “After all, Duncan said they were discreet. And it may be the lass was taken off—perhaps by the man my aunt recalls from Coigach. It could be he’d think Phaedre might help him to the gold, no?”

That was a somewhat happier thought. And it did fit with Phaedre’s premonition—if that’s what it was—which had occurred the same day that the man from Coigach came.

“I suppose all we can do is pray for her, poor thing,” I said. “I don’t suppose there’s a patron saint of abducted persons, is there?”

“Saint Dagobert,” he replied promptly, causing me to stare at him.

“You’re making that up.”

“Indeed I am not,” he said with dignity. “Saint Athelais is another one—and perhaps better, now I think. She was a young Roman lass, who was abducted by the Emperor Justinian, who wished to have his way wi’ her, and she vowed to chastity. But she escaped and went off to live with her uncle in Benevento.”

“Good for her. And Saint Dagobert?”

“A king of some sort—Frankish? Anyway, his guardian took against him as a child, and had him kidnapped away to England, so the guardian’s son might reign instead.”

“Where do you learn these things?” I demanded.

“From Brother Polycarp, at the Abbey of St. Anne,” he said, the corner of his mouth tucking back in a smile. “When I couldna sleep, he’d come and tell me stories of the saints, hours on end. It didna always put me to sleep, but after an hour or so of hearing about holy martyrs having their br**sts amputated or being flogged wi’ iron hooks, I’d close my eyes and make a decent pretense of it.”

Jamie took my cap off and set it on the ledge. The air blew through my inch of hair, ruffling it like meadow grass, and he smiled as he looked at me.

“Ye look like a boy, Sassenach,” he said. “Though damned if I’ve ever seen a lad with an arse like yours.”

“Thanks so much,” I said, absurdly pleased. I had eaten like a horse in the last two months, slept well and deeply through the nights, and knew I was much improved in looks, hair notwithstanding. Never hurt to hear it, though.

“I want ye verra much, mo nighean donn,” he said softly, and curled his fingers round my wrist, letting the pads rest gently on my pulse.

“So the MacKenzies of Leoch are all prone to black jealousy,” I said. I could feel my pulse, steady under his fingers. “Charming, cunning, and given to betrayal.” I touched his lip, ran my thumb lightly along it, the tiny prickles of beard pleasant to the touch. “All of them?”

He looked down, fixing me suddenly with a dark blue gaze in which humor and ruefulness were mingled with a good many other things I couldn’t read.

“Ye think I am not?” he said, and smiled a little sadly. “God and Mary bless ye, Sassenach.” And bent to kiss me.

WE COULD NOT TARRY at River Run. The fields down here on the piedmont had long since been harvested and turned under, the remnants of dried stalks flecking the fresh dark earth; snow would fly soon in the mountains.

We had discussed the matter round and round—but came to no useful conclusion. There was nothing further we could do to help Phaedre—except to pray. Beyond that, though . . . there was Duncan to think of.

For it had occurred to both of us that if Jocasta had found out about his liaison with Phaedre, her wrath was not likely to be limited to the slave girl. She might bide her time—but she would not forget the injury. I’d never met a Scot who would.

We took our leave of Jocasta after breakfast the next day, finding her in her private parlor, embroidering a table runner. The basket of silk threads sat in her lap, the colors carefully arrayed in a spiral, so that she could choose the one she wanted by touch, and the finished linen fell to one side, five feet of cloth edged with an intricate design of apples, leaves, and vines—or no, I realized, when I picked up the end of the cloth to admire it. Not vines. Black-eyed serpents, coiling slyly, slithering, green and scaly. Here and there one gaped to show its fangs, guarding scattered red fruit.

“Garden of Eden,” she explained to me, rubbing the design lightly betwixt her fingers.

“How beautiful,” I said, wondering how long she’d been working on it. Had she begun it before Phaedre’s disappearance?

A bit of casual talk, and then Josh the groom appeared to say that our horses were ready. Jamie nodded, dismissing him, and stood.

“Aunt,” he said to Jocasta matter-of-factly, “I should take it verra much amiss were any harm to come to Duncan.”

She stiffened, fingers halting in their work.

“Why should any harm come to him?” she asked, lifting her chin.

Jamie didn’t reply at once, but stood regarding her, not without sympathy. Then he leaned down, so that she could feel his presence close, his mouth near her ear.

“I know, Aunt,” he said softly. “And if ye dinna wish anyone else to share that knowledge . . . then I think I shall find Duncan in good health when I return.”

She sat as though turned to salt. Jamie stood up, nodding toward the door, and we took our leave. I glanced back from the hallway, and saw her still sitting like a statue, face as white as the linen in her hands and the little balls of colored thread all fallen from her lap, unraveling across the polished floor.

73

DOUBLE-DEALING

WITH MARSALI GONE, the whisky-making became more difficult. Among us, Bree and Mrs. Bug and I had managed to get off one more malting before the weather became too cold and rainy, but it was a near thing, and it was with great relief that I saw the last of the malted grain safely decanted into the still. Once set to ferment, the stuff became Jamie’s responsibility, as he trusted no one else with the delicate job of judging taste and proof.

The fire beneath the still had to be kept at exactly the right level, though, to keep fermentation going without killing the mash, then raised for the distillings once fermentation was complete. This meant that he lived—and slept—beside the still for the few days necessary for each batch to come off. I generally brought him supper and stayed until the dark came, but it was lonely without him in my bed, and I was more than pleased when we poured the last of the new making into casks.

“Oh, that smells good.” I sniffed beatifically at the inside of an empty cask; it was one of the special casks Jamie had obtained through one of Lord John’s shipping friends—charred inside like a normal whisky cask, but previously used to store sherry. The sweet mellow ghost of the sherry mingled with the faint scent of char and the hot, raw reek of the new whisky were together enough to make my head spin pleasantly.

“Aye, it’s a small batch, but no bad,” Jamie agreed, inhaling the aroma like a perfume connoisseur. He lifted his head and eyed the sky overhead; the wind was coming up strong, and thick clouds were racing past, dark-bellied and threatening.

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