A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 7

   

I wanted to tell him that this was a rather dramatic interpretation of what we had seen. But I couldn’t very well tell him he was wrong. Hearing him describe what he saw in thought, I saw it, too, all too clearly.

“You don’t know,” I said at last, softly. “You can’t know.” Unless you find the other men, I thought suddenly, and ask them. I didn’t say that, though.

Neither of us spoke for a bit. I could tell that he was still thinking, but the quicksand of sleep was once more pulling me down, clinging and seductive.

“What if I canna keep ye safe?” he whispered at last. His head moved suddenly on the pillow, turning toward me. “You and the rest of them? I shall try wi’ all my strength, Sassenach, and I dinna mind if I die doing it, but what if I should die too soon—and fail?”

And what answer was there to that?

“You won’t,” I whispered back. He sighed, and bent his head, so his forehead rested against mine. I could smell eggs and whisky, warm on his breath.

“I’ll try not,” he said, and I put my mouth on his, soft against mine, acknowledgment and comfort in the dark.

I laid my head against the curve of his shoulder, wrapped a hand round his arm, and breathed in the smell of his skin, smoke and salt, as though he had been cured in the fire.

“You smell like a smoked ham,” I murmured, and he made a low sound of amusement and wedged his hand into its accustomed spot, clasped between my thighs.

I let go then, at last, and let the heavy sands of sleep engulf me. Perhaps he said it, as I fell into darkness, or perhaps I only dreamed it.

“If I die,” he whispered in the dark, “dinna follow me. The bairns will need ye. Stay for them. I can wait.”

PART TWO

A Gathering of Shadows

8

VICTIM OF A MASSACRE

From Lord John Grey

To Mr. James Fraser, Esq.

April 14, 1773

My dear friend—

I write you in good Health, and trust that I find you and yours in similar condition.

My Son has returned to England, there to complete his Education. He writes with Delight of his Experiences (I inclose a Copy of his most recent Letter), and assures me of his Well-being. More importantly, my Mother also writes to assure me that he flourishes, though I believe—more from what she does not say than from what she does—that he introduces an unaccustomed Element of Confusion and Upheaval in her Household.

I confess to feeling the Lack of this Element in my own Household. So orderly and well-regulated a Life as mine is these Days, you would be astonished. Still, the Quiet seems oppressive to me, and while I am in Health in terms of Body, I find my Spirit somewhat flagging. I miss William sadly, I fear.

For Distraction from my solitary State, I have of late undertaken a new Employment, that of making Wine. While I admit the Product lacks the Power of your own Distillations, I flatter myself that it is not undrinkable, and if allowed to stand for a Year or two, might eventually be palatable. I shall send you a dozen Bottles later in the Month, by the Hand of my new Servant, Mr. Higgins, whose History you may find interesting.

You will perhaps have heard something of a disreputable Brawl occurring in Boston in March of three Years past, which I have often seen in Newspaper and Broadside called a “Massacre,” most irresponsibly—and most inaccurately, to one who has been privy to the actual Occurrence.

I was not present myself, but have spoken to numerous of the Officers and Soldiers who were. If they speak truly, and I believe they do, such a View as is given by the Boston Press of the Matter has been monstrous.

Boston is by all Accounts a perfect Hellhole of republican Sentiment, with so-called “Marching Societies” at large in the Streets in every Weather, these being no more than an Excuse for the Assembly of Mobs, whose chief Sport is the tormenting of the Troops quartered there.

Higgins tells me that no Man would dare go out alone in Uniform, for fear of these Mobs, and that even when in greater Numbers, harassment from the public soon drove them back to their Quarters, save when compelled by Duty to persist.

A Patrol of five Soldiers was so beset one Evening, pursued not only by insults of the grossest Nature, but by hurled Stones, Clods of Earth and Dung, and other such Rubbish. Such was the Press of the Mob around them that the Men feared for their Safety, and thus presented their Weapons, in hopes of discouraging the raucous Attentions rained upon them. So far from accomplishing this Aim, the Action provoked still greater Outrages from the Crowd, and at some Point, a Gun was fired. No one can say for sure whether the Shot was discharged from the Crowd, or from one of the Soldier’s Weapons, let alone whether it were by Accident or in Deliberation, but the Effect of it . . . well, you will have sufficient Knowledge of such Matters to imagine the Confusion of subsequent Events.

In the End, five of the Mob were killed, and while the Soldiers were buffeted and badly handled, they escaped alive, only to be made Scapegoats by the malicious Rantings of the mob’s Leaders in the Press, these so styled as to make it seem a wanton and unprovoked Slaughter of Innocents, rather than a Matter of Self-defense against a Mob inflamed by Drink and Sloganeering.

I confess that my Sympathies must lie altogether with the Soldiers; I am sure so much is obvious to you. They were brought to Trial, where the Judge discovered Three to be Innocent, but no Doubt felt it would be Dangerous to his own Situation to free them all.

Higgins, with one other, was convicted of Manslaughter, but pled Clergy and was released after his Branding. The Army of course discharged him, and without means of making a Living and subject to the Opprobrium of the Populace, he found himself in sad Case. He tells me that he was beaten in a Tavern soon after his Release, injuries inflicted therein depriving him of the Sight in one Eye, and in fact, his very Life was threatened on more than one Occasion. So seeking Safety, he took Passage on a Sloop captained by my Friend, Captain Gill, working as a Sailor, though I have seen him sail and I assure you he is not one.

This state of Affairs became soon evident to Captain Gill, who terminated his Employment upon arrival at their first Port. I was in the Town on Business, and encountered Captain Gill, who told me of Higgins’s desperate Situation.

I contrived to find the Man, feeling some Pity for a Soldier who appeared to me to have performed his Duty honorably, and thinking it hard that he should suffer by it. Discovering him to be intelligent and of a generally agreeable Character, I engaged him in Service, wherein he has proved most faithful.

I send him with the Wine, in Hopes that your Wife might be so kind as to examine him. The local Physician, one Dr. Potts, has seen him, and declares the Injury to his Eye irretrievable, as indeed it may be. Having some personal Experience of your Wife’s skill, however, I wonder whether she might suggest Treatment for his other Ills; Dr. Potts was unable to be of much Help. Tell her, please, that I am her humble Servant, and remain in perpetual Gratitude for her Kindness and Ability.

My warmest Regards to your Daughter, for whom I have sent a small Present, to arrive with the Wine. I trust her Husband will not take Offense at my Familiarity, by Consideration of my long Acquaintance with your Family, and will allow her to accept it.

As always, I remain your Ob’t. Servant,

John Grey

9

THE THRESHOLD OF WAR

April 1773

ROBERT HIGGINS WAS a slight young man, so thin as to seem that his bones were barely held together by his clothes, and so pale that it was easy to imagine you could in fact see through him. He was, however, graced with large, candid blue eyes, a mass of wavy, light-brown hair, and a shy manner that caused Mrs. Bug to take him at once under her wing and declare a firm intent to “feed him up,” before he should depart back to Virginia.

I quite liked Mr. Higgins myself; he was a sweet-natured boy, with the soft accent of his native Dorset. I did rather wonder, though, whether Lord John Grey’s generosity toward him was as unselfish as it seemed.

I had come reluctantly to like John Grey, too, after our shared experience of the measles a few years earlier, and his friendship to Brianna while Roger was held captive by the Iroquois. Still, I remained acutely aware of the fact that Lord John did like men—specifically, Jamie, but certainly other men, as well.

“Beauchamp,” I said to myself, laying out trillium roots to dry, “you have a very suspicious mind.”

“Aye, ye have,” said a voice behind me, sounding amused. “Whom do ye suspect of doing what?”

I jerked in startlement and sent trilliums flying in all directions.

“Oh, it’s you,” I said crossly. “Why must you sneak up on me like that?”

“Practice,” Jamie said, kissing me on the forehead. “I shouldna like to lose my touch at stalking game. Why d’ye talk to yourself?”

“It assures me of a good listener,” I said tartly, and he laughed, bending to help me pick up the roots from the floor.

“Who are ye suspecting, Sassenach?”

I hesitated, but was unable to come up with anything but the truth.

“I was wondering whether John Grey’s buggering our Mr. Higgins,” I said baldly. “Or intends to.”

He blinked slightly, but didn’t look shocked—which in itself suggested to me that he’d considered the same possibility.

“What makes ye think so?”

“He’s a very pretty young man, for the one thing,” I said, taking a handful of the roots from him and beginning to spread them out on a sheet of gauze. “And he’s got the worst case of piles I’ve ever seen in a man of his age, for another.”

“He let ye look at them?” Jamie had flushed up himself at the mention of buggery; he disliked me being indelicate, but he’d asked, after all.

“Well, it took no little persuasion,” I said. “He told me about them readily enough, but he wasn’t keen to have me examine them.”

“I wouldna care for that prospect, either,” Jamie assured me, “and I’m wed to ye. Why on earth would ye want to look at such a thing, beyond morbid curiosity?” He cast a wary glance at my big black casebook, open on the table. “Ye’re no drawing pictures of poor Bobby Higgins’s backside in there, are ye?”

“No need. I can’t imagine a physician in any time who doesn’t know what piles look like. The ancient Israelites and Egyptians had them, after all.”

“They did?”

“It’s in the Bible. Ask Mr. Christie,” I advised.

He gave me a sidelong look.

“Ye’ve been discussing the Bible wi’ Tom Christie? Ye’re a braver man than I am, Sassenach.” Christie was a most devout Presbyterian, and never happier than when hitting someone over the head with a fistful of Sacred Scripture.

“Not me. Germain asked me last week what ‘emerods’ are.”

“What are they?”

“Piles. Then said they, What shall be the trespass offering which we shall return to him? They answered, Five golden emerods, and five golden mice, according to the number of the lords of the Philistines,” I quoted, “or something of the sort. That’s as close as I can come from memory. Mr. Christie made Germain write out a verse from the Bible as punishment, and having an inquiring sort of mind, Germain wondered what it was he was writing.”

“And he wouldna ask Mr. Christie, of course.” Jamie frowned, rubbing a finger down the bridge of his nose. “Do I want to know what it was Germain did?”

“Almost certainly not.” Tom Christie earned the quitrent on his land by serving as the local schoolmaster, and seemed capable of keeping discipline on his own terms. My opinion was that having Germain Fraser as a pupil was probably worth the entire amount, in terms of labor.

“Gold emerods,” Jamie murmured. “Well, there’s a thought.” He had assumed the faintly dreamy air he often had just before coming up with some hair-raising notion involving the possibility of maiming, death, or life imprisonment. I found this expression mildly alarming, but whatever the train of thought triggered by golden hemorrhoids, he abandoned it for the moment, shaking his head.

“Well, so. We were speaking of Bobby’s backside?”

“Oh, yes. As for why I wanted to look at Mr. Higgins’s emerods,” I said, returning to the previous point of conversation, “I wanted to see whether the best treatment was amelioration, or removal.”

Jamie’s eyebrows went up at that.

“Remove them? How? Wi’ your wee knife?” He glanced at the case where I kept my surgical tools, and hunched his shoulders in aversion.

“I could, yes, though I imagine it would be rather painful without anesthesia. There was a much simpler method just coming into widespread use, though, when I . . . left.” Just for a moment, I felt a deep twinge of longing for my hospital. I could all but smell the disinfectant, hear the murmur and bustle of nurses and orderlies, touch the glossy covers of the research journals bulging with ideas and information.

Then it was gone, and I was estimating the desirability of leeches versus string, with reference to Mr. Higgins’s achieving ideal anal health.

“Dr. Rawlings advises the use of leeches,” I explained. “Twenty or thirty, he says, for a serious case.”

Jamie nodded, showing no particular revulsion at the idea. Of course, he’d been leeched a few times himself, and assured me that it didn’t hurt.

“Aye. Ye havena got that many on hand, do ye? Shall I collect the wee lads and set them to gathering?”

Jemmy and Germain would like nothing better than an excuse to go bogging through the creeks with their grandfather, coming back festooned with leeches and mud to the eyebrows, but I shook my head.

“No. Or I mean, yes,” I corrected. “At your convenience—but I don’t need them immediately. Using leeches would relieve the situation temporarily, but Bobby’s hemorrhoids are badly thrombosed—have clots of dried blood in them—” I emended, “and I think he really would be better off if I remove them entirely. I believe I can ligate them—tie a thread very tightly round the base of each hemorrhoid, I mean. That starves them of blood, and eventually, they just dry up and fall off. Very neat.”

“Verra neat,” Jamie murmured, in echo. He looked mildly apprehensive. “Have ye done it before?”

“Yes, once or twice.”

“Ah.” He pursed his lips, apparently envisioning the process. “How . . . er, I mean . . . can he shit, d’ye think, while this is going on? It must take a bit of time, surely.”

I frowned, tapping a finger on the countertop.

“His chief difficulty is that he doesn’t shit,” I said. “Not often enough, I mean, and not with the proper consistency. Horrible diet,” I said, pointing an accusatory finger at him. “He told me. Bread, meat, and ale. No vegetables, no fruit. Constipation is absolutely rife in the British army, I don’t doubt. I shouldn’t be surprised if every man jack of them has piles hanging out of his arse like grape clusters!”

Jamie nodded, one eyebrow raised.

“There are a great many things I admire about ye, Sassenach—especially the delicate manner of your conversation.” He coughed, glancing downward. “But if ye say it’s costiveness that causes piles—”

“It is.”

“Aye, well. It’s only—what ye were saying about John Grey. I mean, ye don’t think the state of Bobby’s arse is to do with . . . mmphm.”

“Oh. Well, no, not directly.” I paused. “It was more that Lord John said in his letter that he wanted me to—how did he put it?—I might suggest treatment for his other ills. I mean, he might possibly know about Bobby’s difficulty, without . . . er . . . personal inspection, shall we say? But as I say, piles are so commonplace an affliction, why ought he be concerned to the point of asking me to do something about them—unless he thought that they might hamper his own eventual . . . er . . . progress?”

Jamie’s face had resumed its normal hue during the discussion of leeches and constipation, but at this point, went red again.

“His—”

“I mean,” I said, folding my arms beneath my bosom, “I’m just a trifle put off . . . by the notion that he’s sent Mr. Higgins down for repair, you might say.” I had been suffering from a niggling feeling of unease regarding the matter of Bobby Higgins’s backside, but hadn’t put this notion into words before. Now that I had, I realized precisely what was bothering me.

“The thought that I’m meant to be fixing up poor little Bobby, and then sending him home to be—” I pressed my lips tight together, and turned abruptly back to my roots, needlessly turning them.

“I don’t like the thought,” I said, to the cupboard door. “I’ll do what I can for Mr. Higgins, mind. Bobby Higgins hasn’t many prospects; no doubt he’d do . . . whatever his Lordship required. But perhaps I’m wronging him. Lord John, I mean.”

“Perhaps ye are.”

I turned round, to find Jamie sitting on my stool, fiddling with a jar of goose grease that seemed to have his full attention.

“Well,” I said uncertainly. “You know him better than I do. If you think he isn’t . . .” My words trailed off. Outside, there was a sudden soft thump as a falling spruce cone struck the wooden stoop.

“I ken more about John Grey than I wish I did,” Jamie said finally, and glanced at me, a rueful smile in the corner of his mouth. “And he kens a great deal more about me than I like to think on. But”—he leaned forward, setting down the jar, then put his hands on his knees and looked at me—“I ken the one thing beyond doubt. He’s an honorable man. He wouldna take advantage of Higgins, nor any other man under his protection.”

He sounded very definite about it, and I felt reassured. I did like John Grey. And still . . . the appearance of his letters, regular as clockwork, always gave me a faint sense of unease, like the hearing of distant thunder. There was nothing about the letters themselves to evoke such a response; they were like the man himself—erudite, humorous, and sincere. And he had reason to write, of course. More than one.

“He does still love you, you know,” I said quietly.

He nodded, but didn’t look at me, his gaze still fixed somewhere beyond the trees that edged the dooryard.

“Would you rather he didn’t?”

He paused, then nodded again. This time, though, he did turn to look at me.

“I would, aye. For myself. For him, certainly. But for William?” He shook his head, uncertain.

“Oh, he may have taken William on for your sake,” I said, leaning back against the counter. “But I’ve seen the two of them, remember. I’ve no doubt he loves Willie for his own sake now.”

“No, I dinna doubt that, either.” He got up, restless, and beat imaginary dust from the pleats of his kilt. His face was closed, looking inward at something he didn’t wish to share with me.

“Do you—” I began, but stopped when he glanced up at me. “No. It doesn’t matter.”

“What?” He tilted his head to one side, eyes narrowing.

“Nothing.”

He didn’t move, merely intensified the stare.

“I can see from your face that it’s not, Sassenach. What?”

I breathed deeply through my nose, fists wrapped in my apron.

“It’s only—and I’m sure it isn’t true, it’s only a passing thought—”

He made a low Scottish noise, indicating that I had better stop blethering and cough it up. Having enough experience to realize that he wouldn’t leave the matter ’til I did, I coughed.

“Did you ever wonder whether Lord John might have taken him because . . . well, William does look terribly like you, and evidently did from an early age. Since Lord John finds you physically . . . attractive . . .” The words died, and I could have cut my throat for speaking them, seeing the look on his face.

He closed his eyes for a moment, to stop me looking in. His fists were curled up so tightly that the veins stood out from knuckle to forearm. Very slowly, he relaxed his hands. He opened his eyes.

“No,” he said, complete conviction in his voice. He gave me a straight, hard look. “And it’s no that I canna bear the thought of it, either. I know.”

“Of course,” I said hastily, eager to leave the subject.

“I know,” he repeated more sharply. His two stiff fingers tapped, once, against his leg, and then stilled. “I thought of it, too. When he first told me he meant to wed Isobel Dunsany.”

He turned away, staring out through the window. Adso was in the dooryard, stalking something in the grass.

“I offered him my body,” Jamie said abruptly, not looking round. The words were steady enough, but I could see from the knotted shoulders how much it cost him to speak them. “In thanks, I said. But it was—” He made an odd convulsive movement, as though trying to free himself from some constraint. “I meant to see, ken, what sort of man he might be, for sure. This man who would take my son for his own.”

His voice shook, very slightly, when he said, “take my son,” and I moved to him by instinct, wanting somehow to patch the open wound beneath those words.

He was stiff when I touched him, not wanting to be embraced—but he took my hand and squeezed it.

“Could you . . . really tell, do you think?” I was not shocked; John Grey had told me of that offer, years before, in Jamaica. I didn’t think he had realized the true nature of it, though.

Jamie’s hand tightened on mine, and his thumb traced the outline of mine, rubbing lightly over the nail. He looked down at me, and I felt his eyes search my face—not in question, but in the way one does when seeing anew some object grown familiar—seeing with the eyes what has been seen for a long time only with the heart.

His free hand rose and traced the line of my brows, two fingers resting for an instant on the bone of my cheek, then moved up, back, cool in the warmth of my hair.

“Ye canna be so close to another,” he said finally. “To be within each other, to smell their sweat, and rub the hairs of your body with theirs and see nothing of their soul. Or if ye can do that . . .” He hesitated, and I wondered whether he thought of Black Jack Randall, or of Laoghaire, the woman he had married, thinking me dead. “Well . . . that is a dreadful thing in itself,” he finished softly, and his hand dropped away.

There was silence between us. A sudden rustle came from the grass outside as Adso lunged and disappeared, and a mockingbird began to shriek alarm from the big red spruce. In the kitchen, something was dropped with a clang, and then the rhythmic shoosh of sweeping began. All the homely sounds of this life we had made.

Had I ever done that? Lain with a man, and seen nothing of his soul? Indeed I had, and he was right. A breath of coldness touched me, and the hairs rose, silent on my skin.

He heaved a sigh that seemed to come from his feet, and rubbed a hand over his bound hair.

“But he wouldna do it. John.” He looked up then, and gave me a crooked smile. “He loved me, he said. And if I couldna give him that in return—and he kent I couldn’t—then he’d not take counterfeit for true coin.”

He shook himself, hard, like a dog coming out of the water.

“No. A man who would say such a thing is not one who’d bugger a child for the sake of his father’s bonny blue eyes, I’ll tell ye that for certain, Sassenach.”

“No,” I said. “Tell me . . .” I hesitated, and he looked at me, one eyebrow up. “If—if he had . . . er . . . taken you up on that offer—and you’d found him . . .” I fumbled for some reasonable wording. “Less, um, decent than you might hope—”

“I should have broken his neck there by the lake,” he said. “It wouldna have mattered if they’d hanged me; I’d not have let him have the boy.

“But he didn’t, and I did,” he added with a half-shrug. “And if wee Bobby goes to his Lordship’s bed, I think it will be of his own free will.”

NO MAN IS really at his best with someone else’s hand up his arse. I had noticed this before, and Robert Higgins was no exception to the general rule.

“Now, this won’t hurt much at all,” I said as soothingly as possible. “All you need to do is to keep quite still.”

“Oh, I s’all do that, mum, indeed I will,” he assured me fervently.

I had him on the surgery table, wearing only his shirt, and situated foursquare on hands and knees, which brought the area of operation conveniently to eye level. The forceps and ligatures I should need were placed on the small table to my right, with a bowl of fresh leeches alongside, in case of need.

He emitted a small shriek when I applied a wet cloth soaked in turpentine to the area, in order to cleanse it thoroughly, but was as good as his word and didn’t move.

“Now, we are going to obtain a very good effect here,” I assured him, taking up a pair of long-nosed forceps. “But if the relief is to be permanent, there will have to be a drastic change in your diet. Do you understand me?”

He gasped deeply, as I grasped one of the hemorrhoids and pulled it toward me. There were three, a classic presentation, at nine, two, and five o’clock. Bulbous as raspberries, and quite the same color.

“Oh! Y-yes, mum.”

“Oatmeal,” I said firmly, transferring the forceps to my other hand without lessening the grip, and taking up a needle threaded with silk thread in my right. “Porridge every morning, without fail. Have you noticed a change for the better in your bowel habits, since Mrs. Bug has been feeding you parritch for breakfast?”

I passed the thread loosely round the base of the hemorrhoid, then delicately pushed the needle up beneath the loop, making a small noose of it, and pulled tight.

“Ahhh . . . oh! Erm . . . tell ’ee truth, mum, it’s like shitting house bricks covered with hedgehog skin, makes no matter what I eat.”

“Well, it will,” I assured him, securing the ligature with a knot. I released the hemorrhoid, and he breathed deeply. “Now, grapes. You like grapes, don’t you?”

“No’m. Sets me teeth on edge to bite ’em.”

“Really?” His teeth didn’t look badly decayed; I should have a closer look at his mouth; he might be suffering from marginal scurvy. “Well, we’ll have Mrs. Bug make a nice raisin pie for you; you can eat that with no difficulty. Does Lord John have a capable cook?” I took aim with my forceps and got hold of the next one. Now accustomed to the sensation, he only grunted a bit.

“Yessum. Be an Indian, he is, named Manoke.”

“Hmm.” Round, up, tighten, tie off. “I’ll write out a receipt for the raisin pie, for you to carry back to him. Does he cook yams, or beans? Beans are quite good for the purpose.”

“I b’lieve he does, mum, but his Lordship—”

I had the windows open for ventilation—Bobby was no filthier than the average, but he was certainly no cleaner—and at this point, I heard sounds from the trailhead; voices, and the jingle of harness.

Bobby heard them, too, and glanced wildly at the window, hindquarters tensing as though to spring off the table like a grasshopper. I grasped him by one leg, but then thought better of it. There was no way of covering the window, bar closing the shutters, and I needed the light.

“Go ahead and stand up,” I told him, letting go and reaching for a towel. “I’ll go and see who it is.” He followed this direction with alacrity, scrambling down and reaching hastily for his breeches.

I stepped out onto the porch, in time to greet the two men who led their mules up over the last arduous slope and into the yard. Richard Brown, and his brother Lionel, from the eponymously named Brownsville.

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