A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 70

   

“Twa bodies,” I said, a little bleakly. “Well, yes. There’s just the difficulty, you see, the two bodies part.” I eyed her closely. Despite the history of malaria and her fine-boned build, she had definitely filled out; she had a plump little bosom swelling over the edge of her bodice, and, while she was sitting on it so I couldn’t tell for sure, very likely a bottom to match. The only real wonder was that it had taken her three months to fall pregnant.

As though reading my mind, she said, “I took the seeds, aye? The ones you and Miss Bree take. I had a store put by, from when I was betrothed to Manfred; Miss Bree gave me them. I meant to gather more, but I didna always remember, and—” She shrugged again, putting her hands across her belly.

“Whereupon you proceeded to say nothing,” I observed. “Did your father find out by accident?”

“No, I told him,” she said. “I thought I best had, before I began to show. Jo and Kezzie came with me.”

This explained Mr. Wemyss’s resort to strong drink, all right. Perhaps we should have brought the jug back with us.

“Your poor father,” I said again, but abstractedly. “Had the three of you worked out any sort of plan?”

“Well, no,” she admitted. “I hadna told the lads I was in a family way ’til this morning, either. They seemed taken back a bit,” she added, biting her lip again.

“I daresay.” I glanced outside; it was still raining, but the downpour had slackened momentarily, dimpling the puddles on the path. I rubbed a hand over my face, feeling suddenly rather tired.

“Which one will you choose?” I asked.

She gave me a sudden, startled look, the blood draining from her cheeks.

“You can’t have them both, you know,” I said gently. “It doesn’t work that way.”

“Why?” she said, trying for boldness—but her voice trembled. “It’s no harming anyone. And it’s no one’s business but ours.”

I began to feel the need of a stiff drink myself.

“Hoho,” I said. “Try telling your father that. Or Mr. Fraser. In a big city, perhaps you could get away with it. But here? Everything that happens is everybody’s business, and you know it. Hiram Crombie would stone you for fornication as soon as look at you, if he found out about it.” Without waiting for a reply, I got to my feet.

“Now, then. We’ll go back to the house and see whether they’re both still alive. Mr. Fraser may have taken matters into his own hands, and solved the problem for you.”

THE TWINS WERE STILL ALIVE, but didn’t look as though they were particularly glad of the fact. They sat shoulder to shoulder in the center of Jamie’s study, pressed together as though trying to reunite into a single being.

Their heads jerked toward the door in unison, looks of alarm and concern mingling with joy at seeing Lizzie. I had her by the arm, but when she saw the twins, she pulled loose and hurried to them with a small exclamation, putting an arm about each boy’s neck to draw him to her bosom.

I saw that one of the boys had a fresh black eye, just beginning to puff and swell; I supposed it must be Kezzie, though I didn’t know whether this was Jamie’s notion of fairness, or merely a convenient means of ensuring that he could tell which twin was which while talking to them.

Mr. Wemyss was also alive, though he didn’t look any more pleased about it than the Beardsleys. He was red-eyed, pale, and still slightly green about the gills, but was at least upright and reasonably sober, seated beside Jamie’s table. There was a cup of chicory coffee in front of him—I could smell it—but it seemed so far untouched.

Lizzie knelt on the floor, still clinging to the boys, the three heads drawn together like the lobes of a clover leaf as they murmured to one another.

“Are ye hurt?” she was saying, and “Are ye all right?” they were asking, an absolute tangle of hands and arms meanwhile searching, patting, stroking, and embracing. They reminded me of nothing so much as a tenderly solicitous octopus.

I glanced at Jamie, who was viewing this behavior with a jaundiced eye. Mr. Wemyss emitted a low moan, and buried his head in his hands.

Jamie cleared his throat with a low Scottish noise of infinite menace, and the proceedings in the middle of the room stopped as though hit with some sort of paralyzing death ray. Very slowly, Lizzie turned her head to look at him, chin held high, her arms still locked protectively about the Beardsleys’ necks.

“Sit down, lass,” Jamie said with relative mildness, nodding toward an empty stool.

Lizzie rose, and turned, her eyes still fixed on him. She made no move to take the offered stool, though. Instead, she walked deliberately round behind the twins and stood between them, putting her hands upon their shoulders.

“I’ll stand, sir,” she said, her voice high and thin with fear, but filled with determination. Like clockwork, each twin reached up and grasped the hand upon his shoulder, their faces assuming similar expressions of mingled apprehension and steadfastness.

Jamie wisely decided not to make an issue of it, instead nodding to me in an offhand way. I took the stool myself, surprisingly glad to sit down.

“The lads and I have been talking wi’ your father,” he said, addressing Lizzie. “I take it it’s true, what ye told your Da? Ye are with child, and ye dinna ken which is the father?”

Lizzie opened her mouth, but no words came out. Instead, she bobbed her head in an awkward nod.

“Aye. Well, then, ye’ll need to be wed, and the sooner the better,” he said, in a matter-of-fact tone of voice. “The lads couldna quite decide which of them it should be, so it’s up to you, lass. Which one?”

All six hands tightened in a flash of white knuckles. It was really quite fascinating—and I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the three of them.

“I can’t,” Lizzie whispered. Then she cleared her throat and tried again. “I can’t,” she repeated more strongly. “I don’t—I don’t want to choose. I love them both.”

Jamie looked down at his clasped hands for a moment, lips pursing as he thought. Then he raised his head and looked at her, very levelly. I saw her draw herself upright, lips pressed together, trembling but resolute, determined to defy him.

Then, with truly diabolical timing, Jamie turned to Mr. Wemyss.

“Joseph?” he said mildly.

Mr. Wemyss had been sitting transfixed, eyes on his daughter, pale hands wrapped round his coffee cup. He didn’t hesitate, though, or even blink.

“Elizabeth,” he said, his voice very soft, “do you love me?”

Her facade of defiance broke like a dropped egg, tears welling from her eyes.

“Oh, Da!” she said. She let go the twins and ran to her father, who stood up in time to clasp her tightly in his arms, cheek pressed to her hair. She clung to him, sobbing, and I heard a brief sigh from one of the twins, though I couldn’t tell which one.

Mr. Wemyss swayed gently with her, patting and soothing her, his murmured words indistinguishable from her sobs and broken utterances.

Jamie was watching the twins—not without sympathy. Their hands were knotted together, and Kezzie’s teeth were fixed in his lower lip.

Lizzie separated herself from her father, sniffling and groping vaguely for a handkerchief. I pulled one from my pocket, got up, and gave it to her. She blew her nose hard, and wiped her eyes, trying not to look at Jamie; she knew very well where the danger lay.

It was, however, a fairly small room, and Jamie was not a person who could be easily ignored, even in a large one. Unlike my surgery, the windows of the study were small and placed high in the wall, which gave the room under normal circumstances a pleasant dim coziness. At the moment, with the rain still coming down outside, a gray light filled the room and the air was chill.

“It’s no a matter of whom ye love, now, lass,” Jamie said very gently. “Not even your father.” He nodded toward her stomach. “Ye’ve a child in your belly. Nothing else matters, but to do right by it. And that doesna mean painting its mother a whore, aye?”

Her cheeks flamed, a patchy crimson.

“I’m not a whore!”

“I didna say ye were,” Jamie replied calmly. “But others will, and it gets around what ye’ve been up to, lass. Spreading your legs for two men, and married to neither of them? And now with a wean, and ye canna name its father?”

She looked angrily away from him—and saw her own father, head bowed, his own cheeks darkening in shame. She made a small, heartbroken sound, and buried her face in her hands.

The twins stirred uneasily, glancing at each other, and Jo got his feet under him to rise—then caught a look of wounded reproach from Mr. Wemyss, and changed his mind.

Jamie sighed heavily and rubbed a knuckle down the bridge of his nose. He stood then, stooped to the hearth, and pulled two straws from the basket of kindling. Holding these in his fist, he held them out to the twins.

“Short straw weds her,” he said with resignation.

The twins gaped at him, open-mouthed. Then Kezzie swallowed visibly, closed his eyes, and plucked a straw, gingerly, as though it might be attached to something explosive. Jo kept his eyes open, but didn’t look at the straw he’d drawn; his eyes were fixed on Lizzie.

Everyone seemed to exhale at once, looking at the straws.

“Verra well, then. Stand up,” Jamie said to Kezzie, who held the short one. Looking dazed, he did so.

“Take her hand,” Jamie told him patiently. “Now, d’ye swear before these witnesses”—he nodded at me and Mr. Wemyss—“that ye take Elizabeth Wemyss as your wife?”

Kezzie nodded, then cleared his throat and drew himself up.

“I do, so,” he said firmly.

“And do you, ye wee besom, accept Keziah—ye are Keziah?” he asked, squinting dubiously at the twin. “Aye, all right, Keziah. Ye’ll take him as your husband?”

“Aye,” Lizzie said, sounding hopelessly confused.

“Good,” Jamie said briskly. “You’re handfast. Directly we find a priest, we’ll have it properly blessed, but ye’re married.” He looked at Jo, who had risen to his feet.

“And you,” he said firmly, “ye’ll leave. Tonight. Ye’ll not come back ’til the child is born.”

Jo was white to the lips, but nodded. He had both hands pressed to his body—not where Jamie had hit him, but higher, over his heart. I felt a sharp answering pain in the same place, seeing his face.

“Well, then.” Jamie took a deep breath, his shoulders slumping a little. “Joseph—have ye still got the marriage contract ye drew for your daughter and young McGillivray? Fetch it out, aye, and we’ll change the name.”

Looking like a snail poking its head out after a thunderstorm, Mr. Wemyss nodded cautiously. He looked at Lizzie, still standing hand-in-hand with her new bridegroom, the two of them resembling Lot and Mrs. Lot, respectively. Mr. Wemyss patted her softly on the shoulder, and hurried out, his feet tapping on the stairs.

“You’ll need a fresh candle, won’t you?” I said to Jamie, tilting my head meaningfully toward Lizzie and the twins. The stub in his candlestick had half an inch to go, but I thought it only decent to give them a few moments of privacy.

“Oh? Oh, aye,” he said, catching my meaning. He coughed. “I’ll, ah, come and get it.”

The moment we entered my surgery, he closed the door, leaned against it, and let his head fall, shaking it.

“Oh, God,” he said.

“Poor things,” I said, with some sympathy. “I mean—you do have to feel sorry for them.”

“I do?” He sniffed at his shirt, which had dried but still had a distinct stain of vomit down the front, then straightened up, stretching ’til his back creaked. “Aye, I suppose I do,” he admitted. “But—oh, God! Did she tell ye how it happened?”

“Yes. I’ll tell you the gory details later.” I heard Mr. Wemyss’s feet coming down the stairs. I took down a fresh pair of candles from the array that hung near the ceiling and held them out, stretching the long wick that joined them. “Do you have a knife handy?”

His hand went automatically to his waist, but he wasn’t wearing his dirk.

“No. There’s a penknife on my desk, though.”

He opened the door just as Mr. Wemyss reached the office. Mr. Wemyss’s exclamation of shock reached me simultaneously with the smell of blood.

Jamie pushed Mr. Wemyss unceremoniously aside, and I rushed in after him, heart in my throat.

The three of them were standing by the desk, close together. A spray of fresh blood stained the desk, and Kezzie was holding my bloodied handkerchief wrapped round his hand. He looked up at Jamie, his face ghostly in the guttering light. His teeth were gritted tight together, but he managed a smile.

A small movement caught my eye, and I saw Jo, carefully holding the blade of Jamie’s penknife over the candle flame. Acting as though no one was there, he took his brother’s hand, pulled off the handkerchief, and pressed the hot metal against the raw oval of the wound on Kezzie’s thumb.

Mr. Wemyss made a small choking noise, and the smell of seared flesh mixed with the scent of rain. Kezzie drew breath deeply, then let it out, and smiled crookedly at Jo.

“Godspeed, Brother,” he said, his voice a little loud and flat.

“Much happiness to you, Brother,” Jo said—in the same voice.

Lizzie stood between them, small and disheveled, her reddened eyes fixed on Jamie. And smiled.

74

SO ROMANTIC

BRIANNA DROVE THE LITTLE CAR slowly up the slope of the quilt over Roger’s leg, across his stomach, and into the center of his chest, where he captured both the car and her hand, giving her a wry grin.

“That’s a really good car,” she said, pulling her hand loose and rolling comfortably onto her side beside him. “All four wheels turn. What kind is it? A Morris Minor, like that little orange thing you had in Scotland? That was the cutest thing I ever saw, but I never understood how you managed to squeeze into it.”

“With talcum powder,” he assured her. He lifted the toy and set a front wheel spinning with a flick of his thumb. “Aye, it is a good one, isn’t it? It isn’t really meant to be a particular model, but I suppose I was remembering that Ford Mustang of yours. Remember driving down out of the mountains that time?” His eyes softened with memory, the green of them nearly black in the dim light of the banked fire.

“I do. I nearly drove off the road when you kissed me at eighty-five miles per hour.”

She moved closer to him by reflex, nudging him with a knee. He rolled obligingly to face her, and kissed her again, meanwhile running the car swiftly backward down the length of her spine and over the curve of her buttocks. She yelped and squirmed against him, trying to escape the tickling wheels, then punched him in the ribs.

“Cut that out!”

“I thought ye found speed erotic. Vroom,” he murmured, steering the toy up her arm—and suddenly down the neck of her shift. She grabbed for the car, but he snatched it away, then plunged his hand under the covers, running the wheels down her thigh—then madly up again.

A furious wrestling match for possession of the car ensued, which ended with both of them on the floor in a tangle of bedding and nightclothes, gasping for breath and helpless with giggling.

“Ssh! You’ll wake up Jemmy!” She heaved and wriggled, trying to get out from under Roger’s weight. Secure in his fifty pounds’ advantage, he merely relaxed on top of her, pinning her to the floor.

“You couldn’t wake him with cannon fire,” Roger said, with a certainty born of experience. It was true; once past the stage of waking to be fed every few hours, Jem had always slept like a particularly comatose log.

She subsided, puffing hair out of her eyes and biding her time.

“Do you think you’ll ever go anywhere at eighty-five miles per hour again?”

“Only if I fall off the edge of a very deep gorge. Ye’re nak*d, did ye know that?”

“Well, so are you!”

“Aye, but I started out that way. Where’s the car?”

“I have no idea,” she lied. It was, in fact, under the small of her back, and very uncomfortable, but she wasn’t about to give him any further advantages. “What do you want it for?”

“Oh, I was going to explore the terrain a bit,” he said, raising himself on one elbow and walking his fingers slowly across the upper slope of one breast. “I suppose I could do it on foot, though. Takes more time, but ye do enjoy the scenery more. They say.”

“Mmm.” He could hold her down with his weight, but couldn’t restrain her arms. She extended one index finger, and placed the nail of it precisely on his nipple, making him breathe in deeply. “Did you have a long journey in mind?” She glanced at the small shelf near the bed, where she kept her contraceptive materials.

“Long enough.” He followed her glance, then looked back to meet her eyes, a question in his own.

She wriggled to make herself more comfortable, unobtrusively dislodging the miniature car.

“They say a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” she said, and raising her head, put her mouth on his nipple, and closed her teeth gently. A moment later, she let go.

“Be quiet,” she said reproachfully. “You’ll wake up Jemmy.”

“WHERE ARE YOUR SCISSORS? I’m cutting it off.”

“I’m not telling you. I like it long.” She pushed the soft dark hair back from his face and kissed the end of his nose, which appeared to disconcert him slightly. He smiled, though, and kissed her briefly back before sitting up, swiping the hair out of his face with one hand.

“That can’t be comfortable,” he said, eyeing the cradle. “Surely I should move him to his own bed?”

Brianna glanced up at the cradle from her position on the floor. Jemmy, aged four, had long since graduated to a trundle bed, but now and then insisted upon sleeping in his cradle for old times’ sake, wedging himself stubbornly into it, despite the fact that he couldn’t get all four limbs and his head inside at once. He was invisible at the moment, save for two chubby bare legs sticking straight up in the air at one end.

He was getting so big, she thought. He couldn’t quite read yet, but knew all his letters, and could count to a hundred and write his name. And he knew how to load a gun; his grandfather had taught him.

“Do we tell him?” she asked suddenly. “And if so, when?”

Roger must have been thinking something along the same lines, for he appeared to understand exactly what she meant.

“Christ, how do you tell a kid something like that?” he said. He rose and picked up a handful of bedding, shaking it in apparent hopes of finding the leather string with which he bound his hair.

“Wouldn’t you tell a kid if he were adopted?” she objected, sitting up and running both hands through her own bountiful hair. “Or if there’s some family scandal, like his father’s not dead, he’s in prison? If you tell them early, it doesn’t mean all that much to them, I don’t think; they’re comfortable with it as they get older. If they find out later, it’s a shock.”

He gave her a wry, sidelong look. “You’d know.”

“So would you.” She spoke dryly, but she felt the echo of it, even now. Disbelief, anger, denial—and then the sudden collapse of her world as she began, against her will, to believe. The sense of hollowness and abandonment—and the sense of black rage and betrayal at discovering how much of what she had taken for granted was a lie.

“At least for you, it wasn’t a choice,” she said, squirming into a more comfortable position against the edge of the bed. “Nobody knew about you; nobody could have told you what you were—but didn’t.”

“Oh, and ye think they should have told you about the time travel early on? Your parents?” He lifted one black brow, cynically amused. “I can see the notes coming home from your school—Brianna has a most creative imagination, but should be encouraged to recognize situations where it is not appropriate to employ it.”

“Ha.” She kicked away the remaining tangle of clothes and bedding. “I went to a Catholic school. The nuns would have called it lying, and put a stop to it, period. Where’s my shift?” She had wriggled completely out of it in the struggle, and while she was still warm from their struggle, she felt uncomfortably exposed, even in the dim shadows of the room.

“Here it is.” He plucked a wad of linen from the mess and shook it out. “Do you?” he repeated, looking up at her with one brow raised.

“Think they should have told me? Yes. And no,” she admitted reluctantly. She reached for the shift and pulled it over her head. “I mean—I see why they didn’t. Daddy didn’t believe it, to start with. And what he did believe . . . well, whatever it was, he did ask Mama to let me think he was my real father. She gave him her word; I guess I don’t think she should have broken it, no.” To the best of her knowledge, her mother had broken her word only once—unwillingly, but to staggering effect.

She smoothed the worn linen over her body and fished for the ends of the drawstring that gathered the neck. She was covered now, but felt just as much exposed as if she were still nak*d. Roger was sitting on the mattress, methodically shaking out the blankets, but his eyes were still fixed on her, green and questioning.

“It was still a lie,” she burst out. “I had a right to know!”

He nodded slowly.

“Mmphm.” He picked up a rope of twisted sheet and began unwinding it. “Aye, well. I can see telling a kid he’s adopted or his dad’s in prison. This is maybe more along the lines of telling a kid his father murdered his mother when he found her screwing the postie and six good friends in the kitchen, though. Maybe it doesn’t mean that much to him if you tell him early on—but it’s definitely going to get the attention of his friends when he starts telling them.”

She bit her lip, feeling unexpectedly cross and prickly. She hadn’t thought her own feelings were still so near the surface, and didn’t like either the fact that they were—or that Roger could see that they were.

“Well . . . yes.” She glanced at the cradle. Jem had moved; he was curled up like a hedgehog now, with his face pressed to his knees, and nothing visible save the curve of his bottom under his nightshirt, rising over the edge of the cradle like the moon rising above the horizon. “You’re right. We’d have to wait until he’s old enough to realize that he can’t tell people; that it’s a secret.”

The leather thong fell out of a shaken quilt. He bent to pick it up, dark hair falling round his face.

“Would ye want to tell Jem someday that I’m not his real father?” he asked quietly, not looking at her.

“Roger!” All her crossness disappeared in a flood of panic. “I wouldn’t do that in a hundred million years! Even if I thought it was true,” she added hastily, “and I don’t. Roger, I don’t! I know you’re his father.” She sat down beside him, gripping his arm urgently. He smiled, a little crookedly, and patted her hand—but he wouldn’t meet her eyes. He waited a moment, then moved, gently disengaging himself in order to tie up his hair.

“What ye said, though. Has he not got a right to know who he is?”

“That’s not—it’s different.” It was; and yet it wasn’t. The act that had resulted in her own conception hadn’t been rape—but it had been just as unintended. On the other hand, there had been no doubt, either: both—well, all three—of her parents had known that she was Jamie Fraser’s child, beyond doubt.

With Jem . . . she looked again at the cradle, instinctively wanting to find some stamp, some undeniable clue to his paternity. But he looked like her, and like her father, in terms both of coloring and feature. He was big for his age, long-limbed and broad-backed—but so were both of the men who might have fathered him. And both, damn them, had green eyes.

“I’m not telling him that,” she said firmly. “Not ever, and neither are you. You are his father, in any way that matters. And there wouldn’t be any good reason for him to even know that Stephen Bonnet exists.”

“Save that he does exist,” Roger pointed out. “And he thinks the wean is his. What if they should meet someday? When Jem’s older, I mean.”

She had not grown up with the habit of crossing herself at moments of stress as her father and cousin did—but she did it now, making him laugh.

“I am not being funny,” she said, sitting up straight. “It’s not happening. And if it did—if I ever saw Stephen Bonnet anywhere near my child, I’d . . . well, next time, I’ll aim higher, that’s all.”

“Ye’re determined to give the lad a good story for his classmates, aren’t you?” He spoke lightly, teasing, and she relaxed a little, hoping that she had succeeded in easing any doubt he might have about what she might tell Jemmy regarding his paternity.

“Okay, but he does have to know the rest, sooner or later. I don’t want him to find out by accident.”

“You didna find out by accident. Your mother did tell you.” And look where we are now. That bit went unspoken, but rang loud inside her head, as he gave her a long, straight look.

If she hadn’t felt compelled to come back, go through the stones to find her real father—none of them would be here now. They’d be safe in the twentieth century, perhaps in Scotland, perhaps in America—but in a place where children didn’t die of diarrhea and sudden fevers.

In a place where sudden danger didn’t lurk behind every tree and war wasn’t hiding under the bushes. A place where Roger’s voice still sang pure and strong.

But maybe—just maybe—she wouldn’t have Jem.

“I’m sorry,” she said, feeling choked. “I know it’s my fault—all of it. If I hadn’t come back . . .” She reached out, tentatively, and touched the ragged scar that circled his throat. He caught her hand and pulled it down.

“Christ,” he said softly, “if I could have gone anywhere to find either of my parents—including hell—Brianna, I would have done it.” He looked up, his eyes bright green, and squeezed her hand hard. “If there’s anyone in this world who understands that, hen, it’s me.”

She squeezed back with both hands, hard. Relief that he didn’t blame her loosened the cords of her body, but sorrow for his own losses—and hers—still filled throat and chest, heavy as wet feathers, and it hurt to breathe.

Jemmy stirred, rose suddenly upright, then fell back, still sound asleep, so that one arm flopped out of the cradle, limp as a noodle. She’d frozen at his sudden movement, but now relaxed and rose to try to tuck the arm back in. Before she could reach the cradle, though, a knock came at the door.

Roger grabbed hastily for his shirt with one hand, his knife with the other.

“Who is it?” she called, heart thumping. People didn’t pay calls after dark, save in emergency.

“It’s me, Miss Bree,” said Lizzie’s voice through the wood. “Can we come in, please?” She sounded excited, but not alarmed. Brianna waited to be sure that Roger was decently covered, then lifted the heavy bolt.

Her first thought was that Lizzie looked excited, too; the little bondmaid’s cheeks were flushed as apples, the color visible even in the darkness of the stoop.

“We” was herself and the two Beardsleys, who bowed and nodded, murmuring apologies for the lateness of the hour.

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