A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 69

   

“There’s only the three casks,” he said. “If ye think ye might manage one, Sassenach, I’ll take the others. I should like to have them safe, rather than dig them out of a snowbank next week.”

A half-mile walk in a roaring wind, carrying or rolling a six-gallon cask, was no joke, but he was right about the snow. It wasn’t quite cold enough for snow yet, but it would be soon. I sighed, but nodded, and between us, we managed to lug the casks slowly up to the whisky cache, hidden among rocks and ragged grapevines.

I had quite regained my strength, but even so, every muscle I had was trembling and jerking in protest by the time we had finished, and I made no objection at all when Jamie made me sit down to rest before heading back to the house.

“What do you plan to do with these?” I asked, nodding back toward the cache. “Keep, or sell?”

He wiped a flying strand of hair out of his face, squinting against a blast of flying dust and dead leaves.

“I’ll have to sell one, for the spring seed. We’ll keep one to age—and I think perhaps I can put the last to good purpose. If Bobby Higgins comes again before the snow, I shall send a half-dozen bottles to Ashe, Harnett, Howe, and a few others—a wee token of my abiding esteem, aye?” He grinned wryly at me.

“Well, I’ve heard of worse bona fides,” I said, amused. It had taken him a good deal of work to worm his way back into the good graces of the North Carolina Committee of Correspondence, but several members had begun answering his letters again—cautiously, but with respect.

“I shouldna think anything important will happen over the winter,” he said thoughtfully, rubbing his cold-reddened nose.

“Likely not.” Massachusetts, where most of the uproar had been taking place, was now occupied by a General Gage, and the latest we had heard was that he had fortified Boston Neck, the narrow spit of land that connects the city to the mainland—which meant that Boston was now cut off from the rest of the colony, and under seige.

I felt a small pang, thinking of it; I had lived in Boston for nearly twenty years, and was fond of the city—though I knew I would not recognize it now.

“John Hancock—he’s a merchant there—is heading the Committee of Safety, Ashe says. They’ve voted to recruit twelve thousand militia, and are looking to purchase five thousand muskets—with the trouble I had to find thirty, good luck to them, is all I can say.”

I laughed, but before I could reply, Jamie stiffened.

“What’s that?” His head turned sharply, and he laid a hand on my arm. Silenced abruptly, I held my breath, listening. The wind stirred the drying leaves of wild grapevines with a papery rustle behind me, and in the distance a murder of crows passed, squabbling in shrill cries.

Then I heard it, too: a small, desolate, and very human sound. Jamie was already on his feet, making his way with care between the fallen rocks. He ducked beneath the lintel made by a leaning slab of granite, and I made to follow him. He stopped abruptly, nearly making me run into him.

“Joseph?” he said incredulously.

I peered around him as best I could. To my equal astonishment, it was Mr. Wemyss, sitting hunched on a boulder, a stone jug between his bony knees. He’d been crying; his nose and eyes were red, making him look even more like a white mouse than usual. He was also extremely drunk.

“Oh,” he said, blinking in dismay at us. “Oh.”

“Are ye . . . quite well, Joseph?” Jamie came closer, extending a hand gingerly, as though afraid that Mr. Wemyss might crack into pieces if touched.

This instinct was sound; when he touched the little man, Mr. Wemyss’s face crumpled like paper, and his thin shoulders began to shake uncontrollably.

“I am so sorry, sir,” he kept saying, quite dissolved in tears. “I’m so sorry!”

Jamie gave me a “do something, Sassenach” look of appeal, and I knelt swiftly, putting my arms round Mr. Wemyss’s shoulders, patting his slender back.

“Now, now,” I said, giving Jamie a “now what?” sort of look over Mr. Wemyss’s matchstick shoulder in return. “I’m sure it will be all right.”

“Oh, no,” he said, hiccuping. “Oh, no, it can’t.” He turned a face streaming with woe toward Jamie. “I can’t bear it, sir, truly I can’t.”

Mr. Wemyss’s bones felt thin and brittle, and he was shivering. He was wearing only a thin shirt and breeches, and the wind was beginning to whine through the rocks. Clouds thickened overhead, and the light went from the little hollow, suddenly, as though a blackout curtain had been dropped.

Jamie unfastened his own cloak and wrapped it rather awkwardly round Mr. Wemyss, then lowered himself carefully onto another boulder.

“Tell me the trouble, Joseph,” he said quite gently. “Is someone dead, then?”

Mr. Wemyss sank his face into his hands, head shaking to and fro like a metronome. He muttered something, which I understood to be “Better if she were.”

“Lizzie?” I asked, exchanging a puzzled glance with Jamie. “Is it Lizzie you mean?” She’d been perfectly all right at breakfast; what on earth—

“First Manfred McGillivray,” Mr. Wemyss said, raising his face from his hands, “and then Higgins. As though a degenerate and a murderer were not bad enough—now this!”

Jamie’s brows shot up and he looked at me. I shrugged slightly. The gravel was jabbing sharply into my knees; I rose stiffly and brushed it away.

“Are you saying that Lizzie is, er . . . in love with someone . . . unsuitable?” I asked carefully.

Mr. Wemyss shuddered.

“Unsuitable,” he said, in a hollow tone. “Jesus Christ. Unsuitable!”

I’d never heard Mr. Wemyss blaspheme before; it was unsettling.

He turned wild eyes on me, looking like a crazed sparrow, huddled in the depths of Jamie’s cloak.

“I gave up everything for her!” he said. “I sold myself—and gladly!—to save her from dishonor. I left home, left Scotland, knowing I should never see it more, that I should leave my bones in the soil of the strangers. And yet I’ve said nay word of reproach to her, my dear wee lassie, for how should it be her fault? And now . . .” He turned a hollow, haunted gaze on Jamie.

“My God, my God. What shall I do?” he whispered. A blast of wind thundered through the rocks and whipped the cloak around him, momentarily obliterating him in a shroud of gray, as though distress had quite engulfed him.

I kept tight hold of my own cloak, to prevent it being torn off me; the wind was strong enough that I nearly lost my footing. Jamie squinted against the spray of dust and fine gravel that blasted us, setting his teeth in discomfort. He wrapped his arms around himself, shivering.

“Is the lass with child, then, Joseph?” he said, obviously wanting to get to the bottom of things and go home.

Mr. Wemyss’s head popped out of the folds of cloak, fair hair tousled into broomstraw. Blinking reddened eyes, he nodded, then excavated the jug and, raising it in trembling hands, took several gulps. I saw the single “X” marked on the jug; with his characteristic modesty, he had taken a jug of the raw new whisky, not the cask-aged higher quality.

Jamie sighed, reached out a hand, and taking the jug from him, took a healthy gulp himself.

“Who?” he said, handing it back. “Is it my nephew?”

Mr. Wemyss stared at him, owl-eyed.

“Your nephew?”

“Ian Murray,” I put in helpfully. “Tall brown-haired lad? Tattoos?”

Jamie gave me a look suggesting that I was perhaps not being quite so helpful as I thought, but Mr. Wemyss went on looking blank.

“Ian Murray?” Then the name appeared to penetrate through the alcoholic fog. “Oh. No. Christ, if it were! I should bless the lad,” he said fervently.

I exchanged another look with Jamie. This looked like being serious.

“Joseph,” he said with just a touch of menace. “It’s cold.” He wiped his nose on the back of his hand. “Who’s debauched your daughter? Give me his name, and I’ll see him wed to her in the morning or dead at her feet, whichever ye like. But let’s do it inside by the fire, aye?”

“Beardsley,” Mr. Wemyss said, in a tone suggesting visions of utter despair.

“Beardsley?” Jamie repeated. He raised one eyebrow at me. It wasn’t what I would have expected—but hearing it came as no great shock, either.

“Which Beardsley was it?” he asked, with relative patience. “Jo? Or Kezzie?”

Mr. Wemyss heaved a sigh that came from the bottoms of his feet.

“She doesn’t know,” he said flatly.

“Christ,” said Jamie involuntarily. He reached for the whisky again, and drank heavily.

“Ahem,” I said, giving him a meaningful look as he lowered the jug. He surrendered it to me without comment, and straightened himself on his boulder, shirt plastered against his chest by the wind, his hair whipped loose behind him.

“Well, then,” he said firmly. “We’ll have the two of them in, and find out the truth of it.”

“No,” said Mr. Wemyss, “we won’t. They don’t know, either.”

I had just taken a mouthful of raw spirit. At this, I choked, spluttering whisky down my chin.

“They what?” I croaked, wiping my face with a corner of my cloak. “You mean . . . both of them?”

Mr. Wemyss looked at me. Instead of replying, though, he blinked once. Then his eyes rolled up into his head and he fell headlong off the boulder, poleaxed.

I MANAGED TO RESTORE Mr. Wemyss to semiconsciousness, but not to the point of his being able to walk. Jamie was therefore obliged to carry the little man slung across his shoulders like a deer carcass; no mean feat, considering the broken ground that lay between the whisky cache and the new malting floor, and the wind that pelted us with bits of gravel, leaves, and flying pinecones. Clouds had boiled up over the shoulder of the mountain, dark and dirty as laundry suds, and were spreading rapidly across the sky. We were going to get drenched, if we didn’t hurry.

The going became easier once we reached the trail to the house, but Jamie’s temper was not improved by Mr. Wemyss’s suddenly coming to at this point and vomiting down the front of his shirt. After a hasty attempt at swabbing off the mess, we reorganized our strategy, and made our way with Mr. Wemyss precariously balanced between us, each firmly gripping one elbow as he slipped and stumbled, his spindly knees giving way at unexpected moments, like Pinocchio with his strings cut.

Jamie was talking to himself volubly in Gaelic under his breath during this phase of the journey, but desisted abruptly when we came into the dooryard. One of the Beardsley twins was there, catching chickens for Mrs. Bug before the storm; he had two of them, held upside down by the legs like an ungainly bouquet of brown and yellow. He stopped when he saw us, and stared curiously at Mr. Wemyss.

“What—” began the boy. He got no further. Jamie dropped Mr. Wemyss’s arm, took two strides, and punched the Beardsley twin in the stomach with sufficient force that he doubled over, dropped the chickens, staggered back, and fell down. The chickens flapped off in a cloud of scattered feathers, squawking.

The boy writhed about on the ground, mouth opening and closing in a vain search for air, but Jamie paid no attention. He stooped, seized the lad by the hair, and spoke loudly and directly into his ear—in case it was Kezzie, I supposed.

“Fetch your brother. To my study. Now.”

Mr. Wemyss had been watching this interesting tableau, one arm draped across my shoulders for support and his mouth hanging open. It continued to hang open as he turned his head, following Jamie as he strode back toward us. He blinked, though, and shut it, as Jamie seized his other arm and, removing him neatly from me, propelled him into the house without a backward glance.

I gazed reproachfully at the Beardsley on the ground.

“How could you?” I said.

He made soundless goldfish mouths at me, his eyes completely round, then managed a long heeeeee sound of inhalation, his face dark purple.

“Jo? What’s the matter, are ye hurt?” Lizzie came out of the trees, a pair of chickens clutched by the legs in either hand. She was frowning worriedly at—well, I supposed it was Jo; if anyone could tell the difference, it would surely be Lizzie.

“No, he’s not hurt,” I assured her. “Yet.” I pointed a monitory finger at her. “You, young lady, go and put those chickens in their coop and then—” I hesitated, glancing at the boy on the ground, who had recovered enough breath to gasp and was gingerly sitting up. I didn’t want to bring her into my surgery, not if Jamie and Mr. Wemyss were going to be eviscerating the Beardsleys right across the hall.

“I’ll go with you,” I decided hastily, gesturing her away from Jo. “Shoo.”

“But—” She cast a bewildered glance at Jo—yes, it was Jo; he ran a hand through his hair to get it out of his face, and I saw the scarred thumb.

“He’s fine,” I said, turning her toward the chicken coop with a firm hand on her shoulder. “Go.”

I glanced back, to see that Jo Beardsley had made it to his feet and, with a hand pressed to his tender middle, was making off toward the stable, presumably to fetch his twin as ordered.

I glanced back at Lizzie, giving her a narrow eye. If Mr. Wemyss had the right end of the stick and she was pregnant, she was evidently one of those fortunate persons who doesn’t suffer from morning sickness or the usual digestive symptoms of early pregnancy; she was, in fact, very healthy-looking.

That in itself should have alerted me, I supposed, pale and green-stick as she normally was. Now that I looked carefully, there seemed to be a soft pink glow about her, and her pale blond hair was shiny where it peeped out under her cap.

“How far along are you?” I asked, holding back a branch for her. She gave me a quick look, gulped visibly, then ducked under the branch.

“About four months gone, I think,” she said meekly, not looking at me. “Um . . . Da told ye, did he?”

“Yes. Your poor father,” I said severely. “Is he right? Both of the Beardsleys?”

She hunched her shoulders a little, head bowed, but nodded, almost imperceptibly.

“What—what will Himself do to them?” she asked, her voice small and tremulous.

“I really don’t know.” I doubted that Jamie himself had formed any specific notions—though he had mentioned having the miscreant responsible for Lizzie’s pregnancy dead at her feet if her father wished it.

Now that I thought, the alternative—having her wed by morning—was likely to be somewhat more problematic than simply killing the twins would be.

“I don’t know,” I repeated. We had reached the coop, a stoutly built edifice that sheltered under a spreading maple. Several of the hens, slightly less stupid than their sisters, were roosting like huge, ripe fruits in the lower branches, heads buried in their feathers.

I pulled open the door, releasing a gust of ripe ammonia from the dark interior, and holding my breath against the stink, pulled the hens from the tree and tossed them brusquely inside. Lizzie ran into the woods nearby, snatching chickens out from under bushes and rushing back to shove them in. Large drops were beginning to plummet from the clouds, heavy as pebbles, making small, audible splats as they struck the leaves above.

“Hurry!” I slammed the door behind the last of the squawking chickens, threw the latch, and seized Lizzie by the arm. Borne on a whoosh of wind, we ran for the house, skirts whirling up round us like pigeons’ wings.

The summer kitchen was nearest; we burst through the door just as the rain came down with a roar, a solid sheet of water that struck the tin roof with a sound like anvils falling.

We stood panting inside. Lizzie’s cap had come off in flight, and her plait had come undone, so that her hair straggled over her shoulders in strands of shining, creamy blond; a noticeable change from the wispy, flyaway look she usually shared with her father. If I had seen her without her cap, I should have known at once. I took time to recover my breath, trying to decide what on earth to say to her.

She was making a great to-do over tidying herself, panting and pulling at her bodice, smoothing her skirts—all the while trying not to meet my eye.

Well, there was one question that had been niggling at me since Mr. Wemyss’s shocking revelation; best to get that one out of the way at once. The initial roar of the rain had slackened to a regular drumbeat; it was loud, but conversation was at least possible.

“Lizzie.” She looked up from her skirt-settling, slightly startled. “Tell me the truth,” I said. I put my hands on either side of her face, looking earnestly into her pale blue eyes. “Was it rape?”

She blinked, the look of absolute amazement that suffused her features more eloquent than any spoken denial could have been.

“Oh, no, ma’am!” she said just as earnestly. “Ye couldna think Jo or Kezzie would do such a thing?” Her small pink lips twitched slightly. “What, did ye think they maybe took it in turns to hold me down?”

“No,” I said tartly, releasing her. “But I thought I’d best ask, just in case.”

I hadn’t really thought so. But the Beardsleys were such an odd mix of the civil and the feral that it was impossible to say definitely what they might or might not do.

“But it was . . . er . . . both of them? That’s what your father said. Poor man,” I added, with a tone of some reproach.

“Oh.” She cast down her pale lashes, pretending to find a loose thread on her skirt. “Ummm . . . well, aye, it was. I do feel something terrible about shaming Da so. And it wasna really that we did it a-purpose . . .”

“Elizabeth Wemyss,” I said, with no little asperity, “rape aside—and we’ve ruled that out—it is not possible to engage in sexual relations with two men without meaning to. One, maybe, but not two. Come to that . . .” I hesitated, but vulgar curiosity was simply too much. “Both at once?”

She did look shocked at that, which was something of a relief.

“Oh, no, ma’am! It was . . . I mean, I didna ken that it . . .” She trailed off, quite pink in the face.

I pulled two stools out from under the table and pushed one toward her.

“Sit down,” I said, “and tell me about it. We aren’t going anywhere for a bit,” I added, glancing through the half-open door at the downpour outside. A silver haze rose knee-high over the yard, as the raindrops struck the grass in small explosions of mist, and the sharp smell of it washed through the room.

Lizzie hesitated, but took the stool; I could see her making up her mind to it that there was really nothing to do now but explain—assuming that the situation could be explained.

“You, um, said you didn’t know,” I said, trying to offer her an opening. “You mean—you thought it was only one twin, but they, er, fooled you?”

“Well, aye,” she said, and took a huge breath of the chilly air. “Something like that. See, ’twas when you and Himself went to Bethabara for the new goat. Mrs. Bug was down wi’ the lumbago, and it was only me and Da in the house—but then he went down to Woolam’s for to fetch the flour, and so it was just me.”

“To Bethabara? That was six months ago! And you’re four months gone—you mean all this time you’ve been—well, never mind. What happened, then?”

“The fever,” she said simply. “It came back.”

She had been gathering firewood when the first malarial chill struck her. Recognizing it for what it was, she had dropped the wood and tried to reach the house, only to fall halfway there, her muscles going slack as string.

“I lay upon the ground,” she explained, “and I could feel the fever comin’ for me. It’s like a great beast, aye? I can feel it seize me in its jaws and bite—’tis like my blood runs hot and then cold, and the teeth of it sink into my bones. I can feel it set in then, to try to break them in twa, and suck the marrow.” She shuddered in memory.

One of the Beardsleys—she thought it was Kezzie, but had been in no state of mind to ask—had discovered her lying in a disheveled heap in the dooryard. He’d run to fetch his brother, and the two of them had raised her, carried her between them into the house, and fetched her upstairs to her bed.

“My teeth were clackin’ so hard together I thought they’d break, surely, but I told them to fetch the ointment, wi’ the gallberries, the ointment ye’d made.”

They had rummaged through the surgery cupboard until they found it, and then, frantic as she burned hotter and hotter, had stripped off her shoes and stockings and begun to rub the ointment into her hands and feet.

“I told them—I told them they must rub it all over,” she said, her cheeks going a deep peony. She looked down, fiddling with a strand of hair. “I was—well, I was quite oot my mind wi’ the fever, ma’am, truly I was. But I kent I needed my medicine bad.”

I nodded, beginning to understand. I didn’t blame her; I’d seen the malaria overpower her. And so far as that went, she’d done the right thing; she did need the medicine, and couldn’t have managed to apply it herself.

Frantic, the two boys had done as she’d said, got her clothes awkwardly off, and rubbed the ointment thoroughly into every inch of her nak*d body.

“I was goin’ in and oot a bit,” she explained, “wi’ the fever dreams walkin’ oot my heid and about the room, so it’s all a bit mixed, what I recall. But I do think one o’ the lads said to the other as he was getting the ointment all over, and would spoil his shirt, best take it off.”

“I see,” I said, seeing vividly. “And then . . .”

And then she had quite lost track of what was happening, save that whenever she drifted to the surface of the fever, the boys were still there, talking to her and each other, the murmur of their voices a small anchor to reality and their hands never leaving her, stroking and smoothing and the sharp smell of gallberries cutting through the woodsmoke from the hearth and the scent of beeswax from the candle.

“I felt . . . safe,” she said, struggling to express it. “I dinna remember much in particular, only opening my eyes once and seein’ his chest right before my face, and the dark curlies all round his paps, and them wee and brown and wrinkled, like raisins.” She turned her face to me, eyes still rounded at the memory. “I can still see that, like as it was right in front o’ me this minute. That’s queer, no?”

“Yes,” I agreed, though in fact it was not; there was something about high fever that blurred reality but at the same time could sear certain images so deeply into the mind that they never left. “And then . . . ?”

Then she had begun to shake violently with chills, which neither more quilts nor a hot stone at her feet had helped. And so one of the boys, in desperation, had crawled under the quilts beside her and held her against him, trying to drive out the cold from her bones with his own heat—which, I thought cynically, must have been considerable, at that point.

“I dinna ken which it was, or if it was the same one all night, or if they changed now and then, but whenever I woke, he was there, wi’ his arms about me. And sometimes he’d put back the blanket and rub more ointment down my back and, and, round . . .” She stumbled, blushing. “But when I woke in the morning, the fever was gone, like it always is on the second day.”

She looked at me, pleading for understanding.

“D’ye ken how that is, ma’am, when a great fever’s broken? ’Tis the same every time, so I’m thinking it may be so for everyone. But it’s . . . peaceful. Your limbs are sae heavy ye canna think of moving, but ye dinna much care. And everything ye see—all the wee things ye take nay notice of day by day—ye notice, and they’re beautiful,” she said simply. “I think sometimes that will be how it is when I’m dead. I shall just wake, and everything will be like that, peaceful and beautiful—save I shall be able to move.”

“But you woke this time, and couldn’t,” I said. “And the boy—whichever it was—he was still there, with you?”

“It was Jo,” she said, nodding. “He spoke to me, but I didna pay much mind to what he said, and I dinna think he did, either.”

She bit her lower lip momentarily, the small teeth sharp and white.

“I—I hadna done it before, ma’am. But I came close, a time or two wi’ Manfred. And closer still wi’ Bobby Higgins. But Jo hadna ever even kissed a lass, nor his brother had, either. So ye see, ’twas really my fault, for I kent well enough what was happening, but . . . we were both slippery wi’ the ointment, still, and nak*d under the quilts, and it . . . happened.”

I nodded, understanding precisely and in detail.

“Yes, I can see how it happened, all right. But then it . . . er . . . went on happening, I suppose?”

Her lips pursed up and she went very pink again.

“Well . . . aye. It did. It—it feels sae nice, ma’am,” she whispered, leaning a little toward me as though imparting an important secret.

I rubbed a knuckle hard across my lips.

“Um, yes. Quite. But—”

The Beardsleys had washed the sheets at her direction, and there were no incriminating traces left by the time her father returned, two days later. The gallberries had done their work, and while she was still weak and tired, she told Mr. Wemyss only that she had had a mild attack.

Meanwhile, she met with Jo at every opportunity, in the deep summer grass behind the dairy shed, in the fresh straw in the stable—and when it rained, now and then on the porch of the Beardsleys’ cabin.

“I wouldna do it inside, for the stink o’ the hides,” she explained. “But we put an old quilt on the porch, so as I shouldna have splinters in my backside, and the rain comin’ down just a foot away . . .” She looked wistfully through the open door, where the rain had softened into a steady whisper, the needles trembling on the pine trees as it fell.

“And what about Kezzie? Where was he, while all this was going on?” I asked.

“Ah. Well, Kezzie,” she said, taking a deep breath.

They had made love in the stable, and Jo had left her lying on her cloak in the straw, watching as he rose and dressed himself. Then he had kissed her and turned to the door. Seeing that he had forgotten his canteen, she called softly after him.

“And he didna answer, nor turn round,” she said. “And it came to me sudden, as he didna hear me.”

“Oh, I see,” I said softly. “You, um, couldn’t tell the difference?”

She gave me a direct blue look.

“I can now,” she said.

In the beginning, though, sex was so new—and the brothers both sufficiently inexperienced—that she hadn’t noticed any differences.

“How long . . . ?” I asked. “I mean, do you have any idea when they, er . . . ?”

“Not for certain,” she admitted. “But if I was to guess about it, I think the first time it was Jo—no, I ken for sure that was Jo, for I saw his thumb—but the second time, it was likely Kezzie. They share, ken?”

They did share—everything. And so it was the most natural thing in the world—to all three of them, evidently—that Jo should wish his brother to share in this new marvel.

“I ken it seems . . . strange,” she said, shrugging a little. “And I suppose I ought to have said something, or done something—but I couldna think what. And really”—she raised her eyes to me, helpless—“it didna seem wrong at all. They’re different, aye, but at the same time, they’re sae close to each other . . . well, it’s just as if I was touching the one lad, and talking to him—only he’s got the twa bodies.”

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