A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 71

   

“Not at all,” Brianna said automatically, glancing around for a shawl. Not only was her linen shift thin and ratty, it had an incriminating stain on the front. “Er, come in!”

Roger came forward to greet the unexpected guests, magnificently disregarding the fact that he was wearing nothing but a shirt, and she scuttled hastily into the dark corner behind her loom, groping for the ancient shawl she kept there as comfort for her legs while working.

Safely wrapped in this, she kicked a log to break the fire, and stooped to light a candle from the fiery coals. In the wavering glow of the candlelight, she could see that the Beardsleys were dressed with unaccustomed neatness, their hair combed and firmly plaited, each with a clean shirt and a leather vest; they didn’t own coats. Lizzie was dressed in her best, too—in fact, she was wearing the pale peach woolen dress they had made for her wedding.

Something was up, and it was fairly obvious what, as Lizzie buzzed earnestly into Roger’s ear.

“Ye want me to marry you?” Roger said, in tones of astonishment. He glanced from one twin to the other. “Er . . . to whom?”

“Aye, sir.” Lizzie bobbed a respectful curtsey. “It’s me and Jo, sir, if ye’d be sae kind. Kezzie’s come to be witness.”

Roger rubbed a hand over his face, looking baffled.

“Well . . . but . . .” He gave Brianna a pleading look.

“Are you in trouble, Lizzie?” Brianna asked directly, lighting a second candle and putting it in the sconce by the door. With more light, she could see that Lizzie’s eyelids were reddened and swollen, as though she had been crying—though her attitude was one of excited determination, rather than fear.

“Not to say trouble, exactly. But I—I’m wi’ child, aye.” Lizzie crossed her hands on her belly, protective. “We—we wanted to be marrit, before I tell anyone.”

“Oh. Well . . .” Roger gave Jo a disapproving look, but appeared no more than half-convinced. “But your father—won’t he—”

“Da would want us to be marrit by a priest,” Lizzie explained earnestly. “And so we will be. But ye ken, sir, it’ll be months—maybe years—before we can find one.” She cast down her eyes, blushing. “I—I should like to be marrit, with proper words, ken, before the babe comes.”

“Yes,” he said, eyes drawn ineluctably to Lizzie’s midsection. “I grasp that. But I dinna quite understand the rush, if ye take my meaning. I mean, ye won’t be noticeably more pregnant tomorrow than ye are tonight. Or next week.”

Jo and Kezzie exchanged glances over Lizzie’s head. Then Jo put his hand on Lizzie’s waist and drew her gently to him.

“Sir. It’s only—we want to do right by each other. But we’d like it to be private, see? Just me and Lizzie, and my brother.”

“Just us,” Kezzie echoed, drawing close. He looked earnestly at Roger. “Please, sir?” He seemed to have injured his hand somehow; there was a handkerchief wound round it.

Brianna found the three of them touching almost beyond bearing; they were so innocent, and so young, the three scrubbed faces turned earnestly up to Roger in supplication. She moved closer and touched Roger’s arm, warm through the cloth of his sleeve.

“Do it for them,” she said softly. “Please? It’s not a marriage, exactly—but you can make them handfast”

“Aye, well, but they ought to be counseled . . . her father . . .” His protests trailed off as he glanced from her toward the trio, and she could see that he was as much touched by their innocence as she was. And, she thought, privately amused, he was also very much drawn by the thought of performing his first wedding, unorthodox as it might be. The circumstances would be romantic and memorable, here in the quiet of the night, vows exchanged by the light of fire and candle, with the memory of their own lovemaking warm in the shadows and the sleeping child a silent witness, both blessing and promise for the new marriage to be made.

Roger sighed deeply, then smiled at her in resignation, and turned away.

“Aye, all right, then. Let me put my breeches on, though; I’m not conducting my first wedding bare-arsed.”

ROGER HELD A SPOON of marmalade over his slice of toast, staring at me.

“They what?” he said, in a strangled tone.

“Oh, she didn’t!” Bree clapped a hand to her mouth, eyes wide above it, removing it at once to ask, “Both of them?”

“Evidently so,” I said, suppressing a most disgraceful urge to laugh. “You really married her to Jo last night?”

“God help me, I did,” Roger muttered. Looking thoroughly rattled, he put the spoon in his coffee cup and stirred mechanically. “But she’s handfast with Kezzie, too?”

“Before witnesses,” I assured him, with a wary glance at Mr. Wemyss, who was sitting across the breakfast table, mouth open and apparently turned to stone.

“Do you think—” Bree said to me, “I mean—both of them at once?”

“Er, she said not,” I replied, cutting my eyes toward Mr. Wemyss as an indication that perhaps this was not a suitable question to be considering in his presence, fascinating as it was.

“Oh, God,” Mr. Wemyss said, in a voice from the sepulchre. “She is damned.”

“Holy Mary, Mother of God.” Mrs. Bug, saucer-eyed, crossed herself. “May Christ have mercy!”

Roger took a gulp of his coffee, choked, and put it down, spluttering. Brianna pounded him helpfully on the back, but he motioned her away, eyes watering, and pulled himself together.

“Now, it’s maybe not so bad as it seems,” he said to Mr. Wemyss, trying to find a bright side to look on. “I mean, one could maybe make a case that the twins are one soul that God’s put into two bodies for purposes of His own.”

“Aye, but—two bodies!” Mrs. Bug said. “Do ye think—both at once?”

“I don’t know,” I said, giving up. “But I imagine—” I glanced at the window, where the snow whispered at the closed shutter. It had begun to snow heavily the night before, a thick, wet snow; by now, there was nearly a foot of it on the ground, and I was reasonably sure that everyone at the table was imagining exactly what I was: a vision of Lizzie and the Beardsley twins, tucked up cozily in a warm bed of furs by a blazing fire, enjoying their honeymoon.

“Well, I don’t suppose there’s actually much anybody can do about it,” Bree said practically. “If we say anything in public, the Presbyterians will probably stone Lizzie as a Papist whore, and—”

Mr. Wemyss made a sound like a stepped-on pig’s bladder.

“Certainly no one will say anything.” Roger fixed Mrs. Bug with a hard look. “Will they?”

“Well, I’ll have to tell Arch, mind, or I’ll burst,” she said frankly. “But no one else. Silent as the grave, I swear it, de’il take me if I lie.” She put both hands over her mouth in illustration, and Roger nodded.

“I suppose,” he said dubiously, “that the marriage I performed isna actually valid as such. But then—”

“It’s certainly as valid as the handfasting Jamie did,” I said. “And besides, I think it’s too late to force her to choose. Once Kezzie’s thumb heals, no one will be able to tell . . .”

“Except Lizzie, probably,” Bree said. She licked a smear of honey from the corner of her mouth, regarding Roger thoughtfully. “I wonder what it would be like if there were two of you?”

“We’d both of us be thoroughly bamboozled,” he assured her. “Mrs. Bug—is there any more coffee?”

“Who’s bamboozled?” The kitchen door opened in a swirl of snow and frigid air, and Jamie came in with Jem, both fresh from a visit to the privy, ruddy-faced, their hair and lashes thick with melting snowflakes.

“You, for one. You’ve just been done in the eye by a nineteen-year-old bigamist,” I informed him.

“What’s a bigamiss?” Jem inquired.

“A very large young lady,” Roger said, taking a piece of buttered toast and thrusting it into Jem’s mouth. “Here. Why don’t ye take that, and . . .” His voice died away as he realized that he couldn’t send Jem outside.

“Lizzie and the twins came round to Roger’s last night, and he married her to Jo,” I told Jamie. He blinked, water from the melting snow on his lashes running down his face.

“I will be damned,” he said. He took a long breath, then realized he was still covered with snow, and went to shake himself at the hearth, bits of snow falling into the fire with a sputter and hiss.

“Well,” he said, coming back to the table and sitting down beside me, “at least your grandson will have a name, Joseph. It’s Beardsley, either way.”

This ridiculous observation seemed actually to comfort Mr. Wemyss a bit; a small bit of color came back to his cheeks, and he allowed Mrs. Bug to put a fresh bannock on his plate.

“Aye, I suppose that’s something,” he said. “And I really cannot see—”

“Come look,” Jemmy was saying, tugging impatiently on Bree’s arm. “Come see, Mama!”

“See what?”

“I wrote my name! Grandda showed me!”

“Oh, you did? Well, good for you!” Brianna beamed at him, then her brow furrowed. “What—just now?”

“Yes! Come see afore it’s covered up!”

She looked at Jamie under lowered brows.

“Da, you didn’t.”

He took a piece of fresh toast from the platter, and spread it neatly with butter.

“Aye, well,” he said, “there’s got to be some advantage still to being a man, even if no one pays a bit of heed to what ye say. Will ye pass the marmalade, Roger Mac?”

75

LICE

JEM PUT HIS ELBOWS on the table, chin on his fists, following the path of the spoon through the batter with the intent expression of a lion watching an appetizing wildebeest on its way to the water hole.

“Don’t even think about it,” I said, with a glance at his grubby fingers. “They’ll be done in a few minutes; you can have one then.”

“But I like ’em raw, Grandma,” he protested. He widened his dark-blue eyes in wordless pleading.

“You oughtn’t to eat raw things,” I said sternly. “They can make you sick.”

“You do, Grandma.” He poked a finger at my mouth, where a smudge of brownish batter remained. I cleared my throat and wiped the incriminating evidence on a towel.

“You’ll spoil your supper,” I said, but with the acuity of any jungle beast, he sensed the weakening of his prey.

“Promise I won’t. I’ll eat everything!” he said, already reaching for the spoon.

“Yes, that’s what I’m afraid of,” I said, relinquishing it with some reluctance. “Just a taste, now—leave some for your daddy and grandda.”

He nodded, wordless, and licked the spoon with a long, slow swipe of the tongue, closing his eyes in ecstasy.

I found another spoon and set about dropping the cookies onto the tin sheets I used for baking. We ended in a dead heat, the sheets full and the bowl quite empty, just as footsteps came down the hallway toward the door. Recognizing Brianna’s tread, I snatched the empty spoon from Jemmy and rubbed a quick towel across his smudgy mouth.

Bree stopped in the doorway, her smile turning to a look of suspicion.

“What are you guys doing?”

“Making molasses cookies,” I said, lifting the sheets in evidence, before sliding them into the brick oven set in the wall of the fireplace. “Jemmy’s been helping me.”

One neat red brow arched upward. She glanced from me to Jemmy, who was wearing a look of sublimely unnatural innocence. I gathered my own expression was no more convincing.

“So I see,” she said dryly. “How much batter did you eat, Jem?”

“Who, me?” Jemmy said, eyes going wide.

“Mmm.” She leaned forward, and picked a speck out of his wavy red hair. “What’s this, then?”

He frowned at it, crossing his eyes slightly in the attempt to focus.

“A real big louse?” he suggested brightly. “Reckon I got it from Rabbie McLeod.”

“Rabbie McLeod?” I said, uneasily aware that Rabbie had been curled up on the kitchen settle a few days ago, his unruly black curls flowing into Jemmy’s bright locks as the boys slept, waiting for their fathers. I recalled thinking at the time how charming the little boys looked, curled up head to head, their faces soft with dreaming.

“Has Rabbie got lice?” Bree demanded, flicking the bit of batter away from her as though it were indeed a loathsome insect.

“Oh, aye, he’s crawlin’,” Jemmy assured her cheerfully. “His Mam says she’s gonna get his daddy’s razor and shave off ever bit of his hair, him and his brothers and his daddy and his uncle Rufe too. She says they got lice hoppin’ all over their bed. She’s tired of bein’ ate up alive.” Quite casually, he lifted a hand to his head and scratched, fingers raking through his hair in a characteristic gesture I had seen all too often before.

Bree and I exchanged a brief look of horror, then she seized Jemmy by the shoulders, dragging him over to the window.

“Come here!”

Sure enough. Exposed to the brilliant light bouncing off the snow, the tender skin behind his ears and on the back of his neck showed the characteristic pinkness caused by scratching for lice, and a quick inspection of his head revealed the worst: tiny nits clinging to the base of the hairs, and a few reddish-brown adult lice, half the size of rice grains, who scrambled madly away into the thickets. Bree caught one and cracked it between her thumbnails, tossing the remains into the fire.

“Eugh!” She rubbed her hands on her skirt, then pulled off the ribbon that tied back her hair, scratching vigorously. “Have I got them?” she asked anxiously, thrusting the crown of her head toward me.

I ruffled quickly through the thick mass of auburn and cinnamon, looking for the telltale whitish nits, then stepped back, bending my own head.

“No, have I?”

The backdoor opened, and Jamie stepped in, looking only mildly surprised to find Brianna picking through my hair like a crazed baboon. Then his head jerked up, sniffing the air.

“Is something burning?”

“I got ’em, Grandda!”

The exclamation reached me together with the scent of singeing molasses. I jerked upright and banged my head on the edge of the dish shelf, hard enough to make me see stars.

These cleared just in time for me to see Jemmy, standing on tiptoe as he reached into the smoking oven in the wall of the hearth, well over his head. His eyes were squinched shut with concentration, his face turned away from the waves of heat coming off the brick, and he had a towel wound clumsily round the groping hand.

Jamie reached the boy with two strides, jerking him back by the collar. He reached into the oven bare-handed and yanked out a tin sheet of smoking cookies, flinging the hot sheet away with such force that it struck the wall. Small brown disks flew off and scattered over the floor.

Adso, who had been perched in the window, helping with the louse hunt, saw what looked like prey and pounced fiercely on a fleeing cookie, which promptly burned his paws. Uttering a startled yowl, he dropped it and raced under the settle.

Jamie, shaking his scorched fingers and making extremely vulgar remarks in Gaelic, had seized a stick of kindling in his other hand and was poking into the oven, trying to extract the remaining cookie-sheet amid clouds of smoke.

“What’s going—hey!”

“Jemmy!”

Roger’s cry coincided with Bree’s. Coming in on Jamie’s heels, Roger’s expression of bewilderment had changed at once to alarm at sight of his offspring crouched on the floor, industriously collecting cookies, and oblivious of the fact that his trailing towel was smoldering in the ashes of the cookfire.

Roger lunged for Jemmy, colliding with Bree on the same course. The two of them cannoned into Jamie, who had just maneuvered the second sheet of cookies to the edge of the oven. He reeled, staggering off balance, and the sheet clanged into the hearth, scattering lumps of smoking, molasses-scented charcoal. The cauldron, knocked askew, swung and shifted perilously on its hook, splashing soup into the coals and sending up clouds of hissing, savory steam.

I didn’t know whether to laugh or run out of the door, but settled for snatching up the towel, which had burst into flames, and beating it out on the stone-flagged hearth.

I stood up, panting, to find that my family had now managed to extricate itself from the fireplace. Roger had a squirming Jemmy in a death grip against his chest, while Bree frisked the child for burns, flames, and broken bones. Jamie, looking rather annoyed, was sucking on a blistered finger, waving smoke away from his face with his free hand.

“Cold water,” I said, addressing the most immediate exigency. I grasped Jamie by the arm, pulled the finger out of his mouth, and stabbed it into the washbowl.

“Is Jemmy all right?” I asked, turning to the Happy Families tableau by the window. “Yes, I see he is. Do put him down, Roger, the child has lice.”

Roger dropped Jemmy like a hot potato, and—in the usual adult reaction to hearing the word “lice”—scratched himself. Jemmy, unaffected by the recent commotion, sat down on the floor and began to eat one of the cookies he had kept clutched in his hand throughout.

“You’ll spoil your—” Brianna began automatically, then caught sight of the spilled cauldron and the puddled hearth, glanced at me, and shrugged. “Got any more cookies?” she asked Jemmy. Mouth full, he nodded, reached into his shirt, and handed her one. She viewed it critically, but took a bite anyway.

“Not bad,” she said, through crumbs. “Hm?” She held the remnant out to Roger, who wolfed it one-handed, using the other to poke through Jemmy’s hair.

“It’s going round,” he said. “At least, we saw half a dozen lads near Sinclair’s, all shaved like convicts. Shall we have to shave your head, then?” he asked, smiling at Jemmy and ruffling the boy’s hair.

The boy’s face lighted up at the suggestion.

“Will I be bald like Grandma?”

“Yes, even balder,” I assured him tartly. I had in fact got a good two-inch crop at the moment, though the curliness made it look shorter, little waves and swirls hugging the curves of my skull.

“Shave his head?” Brianna looked aghast. She turned to me. “Isn’t there any other good way to get rid of lice?”

I looked consideringly at Jemmy’s head. He had the same thick, slightly wavy hair as his mother and grandfather. I glanced at Jamie, who grinned at me, one hand in the washbowl. He knew from experience just how long it took to nit-comb that sort of hair; I’d done it for him many times. He shook his head.

“Shave him,” he said. “Ye’ll not get a lad that size to sit still long enough to comb.”

“We could use lard,” I suggested dubiously. “You plaster his head with lard or bear grease and leave it for a few days. It suffocates the lice. Or at least you hope so.”

“Ack.” Brianna viewed her son’s head with disfavor, obviously envisioning the havoc he could wreak on clothes and linens, if allowed to roam at large while plastered with lard.

“Vinegar and a fine-comb will get out the big ones,” I said, coming to peer down at the fine white line of the parting through Jemmy’s ruddy hair. “It doesn’t get the nits, though; you have to scrape those off with your fingernails—or else wait ’til they hatch and comb them out.”

“Shave him,” Roger said, shaking his head. “Ye never get all the nits; you have to do it over again every few days, and if ye miss a few that grow big enough to hop . . .” He grinned and flicked a cookie crumb off his thumbnail; it bounced off Bree’s skirt and she slapped it away, glowering at Roger.

“You’re a big help!” She bit her lip, frowning, then nodded reluctantly. “All right, then, I suppose there’s no help for it.”

“It will grow back,” I assured her.

Jamie went upstairs to fetch his razor; I went to the surgery to get my surgical scissors and a bottle of oil of lavender for Jamie’s burned finger. By the time I came back, Bree and Roger had their heads together over what looked like a newspaper.

“What’s that?” I asked, coming to peer over Brianna’s shoulder.

“Fergus’s maiden effort.” Roger smiled up at me, and moved the paper so I could see. “He sent it up with a trader who left it at Sinclair’s for Jamie.”

“Really? That’s wonderful!”

I craned my neck to see, and a small thrill went through me at sight of the bold headline across the top of the page:

THE NEW BERN UNION

Then I looked closer.

“Onion?” I said, blinking. “The Onion?”

“Well, he explains that,” Roger said, pointing to an ornately embellished Remarks by the Proprietor in the center of the page, the legend upheld by a couple of floating cherubim. “It’s to do with onions having layers—complexity, you see—and the . . . er”—his finger ran down the line—“the Pungency and Savor of the Reasoned Discourse always to be exercised herein for the compleat Information and Amusement of our Purchasers and Readers.”

“I notice he makes a distinction between purchasers and readers,” I remarked. “Very French of him!”

“Well, yes,” Roger agreed. “There’s a distinctly Gallic tone to some of the pieces, but you can see that Marsali must have had a hand in it—and, of course, most of the advertisements were written by the people who placed them.” He pointed to one small item, headed, Lost, a hat. If found in good condition, please return to the subscriber, S. Gowdy, New Bern. If not in good condition, wear it yourself.

Jamie arrived with his razor in time to hear this, and joined in the laughter. He poked a finger down the page, at another item.

“Aye, that’s good, but I think the ‘Poet’s Corner’ is maybe my favorite. Fergus couldna have done it, I dinna think; he’s no ear for rhyme at all—was it Marsali, d’ye think, or someone else?”

“Read it out loud,” Brianna said, reluctantly relinquishing the paper to Roger. “I’d better clip Jemmy before he gets away and spreads lice all over Fraser’s Ridge.”

Once resigned to the prospect, Brianna didn’t hesitate, but tied a dishcloth round Jemmy’s neck and set to with the scissors in a determined fashion that sent strands of red-gold and auburn falling to the floor like shimmering rain. Meanwhile, Roger read out, with dramatic flourishes,

“On the late Act against retailing

Spirituous Liquors, etc.—

Tell me—can it be understood,

This Act intends the Publick Good?

No truly; I deny it:

For if, as all allow, ’tis best,

Of Evils Two, to chose the least,

Then my Opinion’s right.

Suppose on Search—it should appear,

Ten Bunters dy’d in every year—

“—By drinking to Excess

Should thousands innocent be led

Into Despair, and lose their Bread,

Such folly to redress?

I’d not be thought t’encourage sin,

Or be an Advocate of Gin;

But humbly do conceive,

This scheme, tho’ drawn with nicest care

Don’t with Almighty Justice square

If Scriptures we believe

When Sodom’s Sin for Vengeance call’d

Ten righteous had its Doom forestall’d

And mov’d e’en God to Pity.

But now Ten bare-fac’d Debauchees

Some private Epicures displease,

And ruin half a City.”

“I’d not be thought t’encourage sin/Or be an Advocate of Gin,” Bree repeated, giggling. “You notice he—or she—doesn’t mention whisky. What’s a Bunter, though? Oops, hold still, baby!”

“A harlot,” Jamie said absently, stropping his razor while still reading over Roger’s shoulder.

“What’s a harlot?” Jemmy asked, his radar naturally picking up the single indelicate word in the conversation. “Is it Richie’s sister?”

Richard Woolam’s sister Charlotte was a most attractive young person; she was also a most devout Quaker. Jamie exchanged glances with Roger, and coughed.

“No, I shouldna think it, lad,” he said. “And for God’s sake, don’t say so, either! Here, are ye ready to be shaved?” Not waiting for an answer, he picked up the shaving brush and lathered Jemmy’s polled head, to the accompaniment of delighted squeals.

“Barber, barber, shave a pig,” Bree said, watching. “How many hairs to make a wig?”

“Lots,” I replied, sweeping up the drifts of fallen hair and throwing them into the fire, hopefully to the destruction of all resident lice. It was rather a pity; Jemmy’s hair was beautiful. Still, it would grow again—and the clipping showed off the lovely shape of his head, roundly pleasing as a cantaloupe.

Jamie hummed tunelessly under his breath, drawing the razor over the skin of his grandson’s head with as much delicacy as if he had been shaving a honeybee.

Jemmy turned his head slightly, and I caught my breath, struck by a fleeting memory—Jamie, his hair clipped short against his skull in Paris, readying himself to meet Jack Randall; readying himself to kill—or be killed. Then Jemmy turned again, squirming on his stool, and the vision vanished—to be replaced by something else.

“Whatever is that?” I leaned forward to look, as Jamie drew his razor down with a flourish and flicked away the last dollop of lather into the fire.

“What?” Bree leaned in beside me, and her eyes widened at sight of the small brown blotch. It was about the size of a farthing, quite round, just above the hairline toward the back of his head, behind the left ear.

“What is it?” she asked, frowning. She touched it gently, but Jemmy scarcely noticed; he was squirming even more, wanting to get down.

“I’m fairly sure it’s all right,” I assured her, after a quick inspection. “It looks like what’s called a nevus—it’s something like a flat mole, usually quite harmless.”

“But where did it come from? He wasn’t born with it, I know!” she protested.

“Babies very seldom have any sort of mole,” I explained, untying my dishcloth from round Jemmy’s neck. “All right, yes, you’re done! Go and be good now—we’ll have supper as soon as I can manage. No,” I added, turning back to Bree, “moles usually start to develop around three years of age—though of course people can get more as they grow older.”

Freed from restraint, Jemmy was rubbing his nak*d head with both hands, looking pleased and chanting, “Char-lotte the Har-lot, Char-lotte the Har-lot,” quietly under his breath.

“You’re sure it’s all right?” Brianna was still frowning, worried. “It isn’t dangerous?”

“Oh, aye, it’s nothing,” Roger assured her, glancing up from the newspaper. “I’ve had one just like that myself, ever since I was a kid. Just . . . here.” His face changed abruptly as he spoke, and his hand rose, very slowly, to rest on the back of his head—just above the hairline, behind the left ear.

He looked at me, and I saw his throat move as he swallowed, the jagged rope scar dark against the sudden paleness of his skin. The down hairs rose silently on my arms.

“Yes,” I said, answering the look, and hoping my voice didn’t shake too noticeably. “That sort of mark is . . . often hereditary.”

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