A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 72

   

Jamie said nothing, but his hand closed on mine, squeezing tight.

Jemmy was on his hands and knees now, trying to coax Adso out from under the settle. His neck was small and fragile, and his shaven head looked unearthly white and shockingly nak*d, like a mushroom poking out of the earth. Roger’s eyes rested on it for a moment; then he turned to Bree.

“I do believe perhaps I’ve picked up a few lice myself,” he said, his voice just a tiny bit too loud. He reached up, pulled off the thong that bound his thick black hair, and scratched his head vigorously with both hands. Then he picked up the scissors, smiling, and held them out to her. “Like father, like son, I suppose. Give us a hand here, aye?”

PART TEN

Where’s Perry Mason

When You Need Him?

76

DANGEROUS

CORRESPONDENCE

From Mount Josiah Plantation in the Colony of Virginia,

Lord John Grey to Mr. James Fraser, Esq.,

Fraser’s Ridge, North Carolina,

upon the Sixth of March, Anno Domini 1775

Dear Mr. Fraser—

What in the Name of God are you about? I have known you in the course of our long Acquaintance to be many Things—Intemperate and Stubborn being two of them—but have always known you for a Man of Intelligence and Honor.

Yet despite explicit Warnings, I find your Name upon more than one List of suspected Traitors and Seditionists, associated with illegal Assemblies, and thus subject to Arrest. The Fact that you are still at Liberty, my Friend, reflects nothing more than the Lack of Troops at present available in North Carolina—and that may change rapidly. Josiah Martin has implored London for Help, and it will be forthcoming, I assure you.

Was Gage not more than sufficiently occupied in Boston, and Lord Dunsmore’s Virginia troops still in process of Assembly, the Army would be upon you within a few Months. Do not delude yourself; the King may be misguided in his Actions, but the Government perceives—if belatedly—the Level of Turmoil in the Colonies, and is moving as rapidly as may be to suppress it, before greater Harm can ensue.

Whatever else you may be, you are no Fool, and so I must assume you realize the Consequences of your Actions. But I would be less than a Friend did I not put the Case to you bluntly: you expose your Family to the utmost Danger by your Actions, and you put your own Head in a Noose.

For the Sake of whatever Affection you may yet bear me, and for the Sake of those dear Connexions between your Family and myself—I beg you to renounce these most dangerous Associations while there is still Time.

John

I read the letter through, then looked up at Jamie. He was sitting at his desk, papers strewn in every direction, scattered with the small brown fragments of broken sealing wax. Bobby Higgins had brought a good many letters, newspapers, and packages—Jamie had put off reading Lord John’s letter ’til the last.

“He’s very much afraid for you,” I said, putting the single sheet of paper down on top of the rest.

Jamie nodded.

“For a man of his parts to refer to the King’s actions as possibly ‘misguided’ is verra close to treason, Sassenach,” he observed, though I thought he was joking.

“These lists he mentions—do you know anything about that?”

He shrugged at that, and poked through one of the untidy piles with a forefinger, pulling out a smeared sheet that had obviously been dropped in a puddle at some point.

“Like that, I suppose,” he said, handing it over. It was unsigned, and nearly illegible, a misspelt and vicious denunciation of various Outrages and Debached Persons—here listed—whose speech, action, and appearance was a threat to all who valued peace and prosperity. These, the writer felt, should be shown whats what, presumably by being beaten, skinned alive, rold in bolling Tar and plac’d on a Rail, or in particularly pernicious cases, Hanged outright from there own Rooftrees.

“Where did you pick that up?” I dropped it on the desk, using two fingers.

“In Campbelton. Someone sent it to Farquard, as Justice of the Peace. He gave it to me, because my name is on it.”

“It is?” I squinted at the straggling letters. “Oh, so it is. J. Frayzer. You’re sure it’s you? There are quite a few Frasers, after all, and not a few named John, James, Jacob, or Joseph.”

“Relatively few who could be described as a Red-haired dejenerate Pox-ridden Usuring Son of a Bitch who skulks in Brothels when not drunk and comitting Riot in the Street, I imagine.”

“Oh, I missed that part.”

“It’s in the exposition at the bottom.” He gave the paper a brief, indifferent glance. “I think Buchan the butcher wrote it, myself.”

“Always assuming that ‘usuring’ is a word, I don’t see where he gets that bit; you haven’t any money to lend.”

“I wouldna suppose a basis in truth is strictly required, under the circumstances, Sassenach,” he said very dryly. “And thanks to MacDonald and wee Bobby, there are a good many folk who think I do have money—and if I am not inclined to lend it to them, why then, plainly it’s a matter of my having put my fortune all in the hands of Jews and Whig speculators, as I am intent upon ruining trade for my own profit.”

“What?”

“That was a somewhat more literary effort,” he said, shuffling through the pile and pulling out an elegant parchment sheet, done in a copperplate hand. This one had been sent to a newspaper in Hillsboro, and was signed, A Friend to Justice; and while it didn’t name Jamie, it was clear who the subject of the denunciation was.

“It’s the hair,” I said, looking critically at him. “If you wore a wig, they’d have a much harder time of it.”

He lifted one shoulder in a sardonic shrug. The commonly held view of red hair as an indicator of low character and moral coarseness, if not outright demonic possession, was by no means limited to anonymous ill-wishers. The knowledge of that view—together with personal disinclination—had quite a bit to do with the fact that he never did wear either wig or powder, even in situations where a proper gentleman would.

Without asking, I reached for a stack of the papers and began to leaf through them. He made no move to stop me, but sat quietly watching, listening to the thrum of the rain.

A heavy spring storm was washing down outside, and the air was cold and damp, thick with the green scents of the forest insinuating themselves through the crevices of door and window. I sometimes had the sudden feeling, hearing the wind coming through the trees, that the wilderness outside meant to come in, march through the house, and obliterate it, erasing all trace of us.

The letters were a mixed bag. Some were from the members of the North Carolina Committee of Correspondence, with bits of news, most of it from the north. Continental Association Committees had sprung up in New Hampshire and New Jersey, these bodies now beginning to virtually take over the functions of government, as the royal governors lost their grip on assemblies, courts, and Customs, the remnants of organization falling ever deeper into disarray.

Boston was still occupied by Gage’s troops, and some of the letters continued the appeals for food and supplies to be sent to the succor of her citizens—we had sent two hundredweight of barley during the winter, which one of the Woolams had undertaken to get into the city, along with three wagonloads of other foodstuffs contributed by the inhabitants of the Ridge.

Jamie had picked up his quill, and was writing something, slowly, to accommodate the stiffness of his hand.

Next up was a note from Daniel Putnam, circulated through Massachusetts, noting the rising of militia companies in the countryside, and asking for arms and powder. It was signed by a dozen other men, each one bearing witness to the truth of the situation in his own township.

A Second Continental Congress was proposed, to meet in Philadelphia, the date yet undecided.

Georgia had formed a Provincial Congress, but as the Loyalist letter-writer—plainly assuming Jamie to be like-minded—triumphantly noted, There is no Sense of Grievance toward Great Britain here, as elsewhere; Loyalist Sentiment is so strong that only five Parishes of twelve have sent anyone to this upstart and illegal Congress.

A much-bedraggled copy of the Massachusetts Gazette, dated February 6, containing a letter, circled in ink and titled The Rule of Law and the Rule of Men. It was signed Novanglus—which I took to be a sort of hog-Latin for “new Englishman”—and to be a response to previous letters by a Tory who signed himself Massachusettensis, of all things.

I had no idea who Massachusettensis might be, but I recognized a few phrases from Novanglus’s letter, from long-ago bits of Bree’s schoolwork—John Adams, in good form.

“A government of laws, not of men,” I murmured. “What sort of pen name would you use, if you were going to write this sort of thing?” Glancing up, I caught sight of him, looking sheepish to a degree.

“You’ve been doing it already?”

“Well, just the odd bittie letter here or there,” he said defensively. “No pamphlets.”

“Who are you?”

He shrugged, deprecating.

“Scotus Americanus, but only ’til I think of something better. There are a few others using that name, that I ken.”

“Well, that’s something. The King will have a harder time picking you out of the crowd.” Muttering “Massachusettensis” to myself, I picked up the next document.

A note from John Stuart, much affronted by Jamie’s abrupt resignation, noting that the most illegal and prodigal Congress, as they call it of Massachusetts had formally invited the Stockbridge Indians to enlist in the service of the colony, and informing Jamie that should any of the Cherokee follow suit, he, John Stuart, would take the greatest pleasure in personally ensuring that he, Jamie Fraser, was hanged for treason.

“And I don’t suppose John Stuart even knows you have red hair,” I observed, laying it aside. I felt a trifle shaky, in spite of my attempts to joke about it. Seeing it all laid out in black and white solidified the clouds that had been gathering round us, and I felt the first chilling drop of icy rain on my skin, despite the woolen shawl around my shoulders.

There was no hearth in the study; only a small brazier that we used for heat. It was burning now in the corner, and Jamie rose, picked up a stack of letters, and began to feed them to the fire, one by one.

I had a sudden rush of déjà vu, and saw him standing by the hearth in the drawing room of his cousin Jared’s house in Paris, feeding letters to the fire. The stolen letters of Jacobite conspirators, rising in white puffs of smoke, the gathering clouds of a storm long past.

I remembered what Fergus had said, in answer to Jamie’s instructions: “I remember how this game is played.” So did I, and spicules of ice began to form in my blood.

Jamie dropped the last flaming fragment into the brazier, then sanded the page he had been writing, shook the sand off, and handed it to me. He had used one of the sheets of the special paper Bree had made by pressing a digested pulp of rags and plant matter between silk screens. It was thicker than the usual, with a soft, glossy texture, and she had mixed berries and tiny leaves into the pulp, so that here and there a small red stain spread like blood beneath the shadow of a leaf’s silhouette.

From Fraser’s Ridge, in the Colony of North Carolina,

this 16th day of March, Anno Domini 1775,

James Fraser to Lord John Grey, of Mount Josiah Plantation,

in the Colony of Virginia

My dear John—

It is too late.

Our continued Correspondence cannot but prove a Danger to you, but it is with the greatest Regret that I sever this Link between us.

Believe me ever

Your most humble and affectionate Friend,

Jamie

I read it in silence, and handed it back. As he poked about in search of the sealing wax, I noticed a small wrapped parcel on the corner of his desk that had been hidden by the drifts of paper.

“What’s this?” I picked it up; it was amazingly heavy for its size.

“A present from his Lordship, for wee Jemmy.” He lit the beeswax taper from the brazier and held it over the seam of the folded letter. “A set of lead soldiers, Bobby says.”

77

THE EIGHTEENTH OF APRIL

ROGER CAME AWAKE QUITE SUDDENLY , with no notion what had wakened him. It was full dark, but the air had the still, inward feel of the small hours; the world holding its breath, before dawn comes on a rising wind.

He turned his head on the pillow and saw that Brianna was awake, too; she lay looking upward, and he caught the brief flicker of her eyelids as she blinked.

He moved a hand to touch her, and hers closed over it. An adjuration to silence? He lay very still, listening, but heard nothing. An ember broke in the hearth with a muffled crack and her hand tightened. Jemmy flung himself over in bed with a rustle of quilts, let out a small yelp, and fell silent. The night was undisturbed.

“What is it?” he said, low-voiced.

She didn’t turn to look at him; her eyes were fixed now on the window, a dark gray rectangle, barely visible.

“Yesterday was the eighteenth of April,” she said. “It’s here.” Her voice was calm, but there was something in it that made him move closer, so they lay side by side, touching from shoulder to foot.

Somewhere to the north of them, men were gathering in the cold spring night. Eight hundred British troops, groaning and cursing as they dressed by candlelight. Those who had gone to bed rousing to the beat of the drum passing by the houses and warehouses and churches where they quartered, those who hadn’t, stumbling from dice and drink, the warm hearths of taverns, the warm arms of women, hunting lost boots and seizing weapons, turning out by twos and threes and fours, clanking and mumbling through the streets of frozen mud to the muster point.

“I grew up in Boston,” she said, her voice softly conversational. “Every kid in Boston learned that poem, somewhere along the line. I learned it in fifth grade.”

“Listen, my children, and you shall hear/Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere.” Roger smiled, envisioning her in the uniform of Saint Finbar’s parochial school, blue overall jumper, white blouse, and knee socks. He’d seen her fifth-grade school photograph once; she looked like a small, fierce, disheveled tiger that some maniac had dressed in doll’s clothes.

“That’s the one. On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five/Hardly a man is now alive/Who remembers that famous day and year.”

“Hardly a man,” Roger echoed softly. Someone—who? A householder, eavesdropping on the British commanders quartered in his house? A barmaid, bringing mugs of pokered hot rum to a couple of sergeants? There was no keeping of secrets, not with eight hundred men on the move. It was all a matter of time. Someone had sent word from the occupied city, word that the British meant to seize the stored arms and powder in Concord, and at the same time, arrest Hancock and Samuel Adams—the founder of the Committee of Safety, the inflammatory speaker, the leaders of this treasonous rebellion—reported to be in Lexington.

Eight hundred men to capture two? Good odds. And a silversmith and his friends, alarmed at the news, had set out into that cold night. Bree continued:

“He said to his friend, ‘If the British march

By land or sea from the town tonight,

Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry arch

Of the North Church tower as a signal light—

One if by land, and two if by sea;

And I on the opposite shore will be,

Ready to ride and spread the alarm

Through every Middlesex village and farm,

For the country folk to be up and to arm.’”

“They don’t write poems like that anymore,” Roger said. But in spite of his cynicism, he couldn’t bloody help seeing it: the steam of a horse’s breath, white in darkness, and across the black water, the tiny star of a lantern, high above the sleeping town. And then another.

“What happened next?” he said.

“Then he said ‘Good-night!’ and with muffled oar

Silently rowed to the Charlestown shore,

Just as the moon rose over the bay,

Where swinging wide at her moorings lay

The Somerset, British man-of-war;

A phantom ship, with each mast and spar

Across the moon like a prison bar,

And a huge black hulk, that was magnified

By its own reflection in the tide.”

“Well, that’s not too bad,” he said judiciously. “I like the bit about the Somerset. Rather a painterly description.”

“Shut up.” She kicked him, though without real violence. “It goes on about his friend, who wanders and watches, with eager ears—” Roger snorted, and she kicked him again. “Till in the silence around him he hears/The muster of men at the barrack door/The sound of arms, and the tramp of feet/And the measured tread of the grenadiers/Marching down to their boats on the shore.”

He had visited her in Boston in the spring. In mid-April, the trees would have no more than a haze of green, their branches still mostly bare against pale skies. The nights were still frigid, but the cold was somehow touched with life, a freshness moving through the icy air.

“Then there’s a boring part about the friend climbing the stairs of the church tower, but I like the next verse.” Her voice, already soft, dropped a little, whispering.

“Beneath, in the churchyard, lay the dead,

In their night encampment on the hill,

Wrapped in silence so deep and still

That he could hear, like a sentinel’s tread,

The watchful night-wind, as it went

Creeping along from tent to tent,

And seeming to whisper, ‘All is well!’

A moment only he feels the spell

Of the place and the hour, and the secret dread

Of the lonely belfry and the dead;

For suddenly all his thoughts are bent

On a shadowy something far away,

Where the river widens to meet the bay—

A line of black that bends and floats

On the rising tide like a bridge of boats.”

“Then there’s a lot of stuff with old Paul killing time waiting for the signal,” she said, abandoning the dramatic whisper for a more normal tone of voice. “But it finally shows up, and then . . .

“A hurry of hoofs in a village street,

A shape in the moonlight, a bulk in the dark,

And beneath, from the pebbles, in passing, a spark

Struck out by a steed flying fearless and fleet;

That was all! And yet, through the gloom and the light,

The fate of a nation was riding that night;

And the spark struck out by that steed, in his flight,

Kindled the land into flame with its heat.”

“That’s actually pretty good.” His hand curved over her thigh, just above the knee, in case she might kick him again, but she didn’t. “Do you remember the rest?”

“So he goes along by the Mystic River,” Brianna said, ignoring him, “and then there are three verses, as he passes through the townships:

“It was twelve by the village clock

When he crossed the bridge into Medford town.

He heard the crowing of the cock,

“And the barking of the farmer’s dog,

And felt the damp of the river fog,

That rises after the sun goes down.

“It was one by the village clock,

When he galloped into Lexington.

He saw the gilded weathercock

Swim in the moonlight as he passed,

And the meeting-house windows, blank and bare,

Gaze at him with a spectral glare,

As if they already stood aghast

At the bloody work they would look upon.

“It was two by the village clock—and yes, I hear the clock chiming in the first lines, be quiet!” He had in fact drawn breath, but not to interrupt, only because he’d suddenly realized he’d been holding it. “It was two by the village clock,” she repeated,

“When he came to the bridge in Concord town.

He heard the bleating of the flock,

And the twitter of birds among the trees,

And felt the breath of the morning breeze

Blowing over the meadow brown.

And one was safe and asleep in his bed

Who at the bridge would be first to fall,

Who that day would be lying dead,

Pierced by a British musket ball.

“You know the rest.” She stopped abruptly, her hand tight on his.

From one moment to the next, the character of the night had changed. The stillness of the small hours had ceased, and a breath of wind moved through the trees outside. All of a sudden, the night was alive again, but dying now, rushing toward dawn.

If not actively twittering, the birds were wakeful; something called, over and over, in the nearby wood, high and sweet. And above the stale, heavy scent of the fire, he breathed the wild clean air of morning, and felt his heart beat with sudden urgency.

“Tell me the rest,” he whispered.

He saw the shadows of men in the trees, the stealthy knocking on doors, the low-voiced, excited conferences—and all the while, the light growing in the east. The lap of water and creak of oars, the sound of restless kine lowing to be milked, and on the rising breeze the smell of men, stale with sleep and empty of food, harsh with black powder and the scent of steel.

And without thinking, pulled his hand from his wife’s grasp, rolled over her, and pulling up the shift from her thighs, took her hard and fast, in vicarious sharing of that mindless urge to spawn that attended the imminent presence of death.

Lay on her trembling, the sweat drying on his back in the breeze from the window, heart thumping in his ears. For the one, he thought. The one who would be the first to fall. The poor sod who maybe hadn’t swived his wife in the dark and taken the chance to leave her with child, because he had no notion what was coming with the dawn. This dawn.

Brianna lay still under him; he could feel the rise and fall of her breath, powerful ribs that lifted even under his weight.

“You know the rest,” she whispered.

“Bree,” he said very softly. “I would sell my soul to be there now.”

“Shh,” she said, but her hand rose, and settled on his back in what might be benediction. They lay still, watching the light grow by degrees, keeping silence.

THIS SILENCE WAS broken a quarter of an hour later, by the sound of rushing footsteps and a pounding at the door. Jemmy popped out of his blankets like a cuckoo from a clock, eyes round, and Roger heaved himself up, hurriedly brushing down his nightshirt.

It was one of the Beardsleys, face pinched and white in the gray light. He paid no attention to Roger, but cried out to Brianna, “Lizzie’s having the baby, come quick!”, before dashing off in the direction of the Big House, where the figure of his brother could be seen gesticulating wildly on the porch.

Brianna flung on her clothes and burst out of the cabin, leaving Roger to deal with Jemmy. She met her mother, similarly disheveled but with a neatly packed medical kit slung over her shoulder, hurrying toward the narrow path that led past spring house and stable, into the distant woods where the Beardsleys’ cabin lay.

“She should have come down last week,” Claire gasped. “I told her . . .”

“So did I. She said . . .” Brianna gave up the attempt to speak. The Beardsley twins had long outdistanced them, sprinting through the wood like deer, whooping and yelling—whether from sheer excitement at their impending fatherhood, or to let Lizzie know help was on the way, she couldn’t tell.

Claire had worried about Lizzie’s malaria, she knew. And yet the yellow shadow that so often hung over her erstwhile bondmaid had all but disappeared during her pregnancy; Lizzie bloomed.

Nonetheless, Brianna felt her stomach clench in fear as they came into sight of the Beardsleys’ cabin. The hides had been moved outside, stacked round the tiny house like a barricade, and the smell of them gave her a moment’s terrible vision of the MacNeills’ cabin, filled with death.

The door hung open, though, and there were no flies. She forced herself to hang back an instant, to let Claire go in first, but hurried in on her heels—to find that they were too late.

Lizzie sat up in a blood-smeared bower of furs, blinking with amazed stupefaction at a small, round, blood-smeared baby, who was regarding her with the exact same expression of open-mouthed astonishment.

Jo and Kezzie were clutching each other, too excited and afraid to speak. From the corner of her eye, Brianna saw their mouths opening and closing in syncopation, and wanted to laugh, but instead followed her mother to the bedside.

“He just popped out!” Lizzie was saying, glancing momentarily at Claire, but then jerking her fascinated gaze back to the baby, as though she expected him—yes, it was a him, Brianna saw—to disappear as suddenly as he had arrived.

“My back hurt something dreadful, all last night, so I couldna sleep, and the lads took it in turns to rub me, but it didna really help, and then when I got up to go to the privy this morning, all the water burst forth from betwixt my legs—just as ye said it would, ma’am!” she said to Claire. “And so I said to Jo and Kezzie they must run fetch ye, but I didna ken quite what to do next. So I set about to mix up batter for to make hoecake for breakfast”—she waved at the table, where a bowl of flour sat with a jug of milk and two eggs—“and next thing, I had this terrible urge to—to—” She blushed, a deep, becoming peony color.

“Well, I couldna even reach the chamber-pot. I just squatted there by the table, and—and—pop! There he was, right on the ground beneath me!”

Claire had picked the new arrival up, and was cooing reassurances to him, while deftly checking whatever it was one checked about new babies. Lizzie had made a blanket in preparation, carefully knitted of lamb’s wool, dyed with indigo. Claire glanced at the pristine blanket, then pulled a length of stained, soft flannel from her kit. Wrapping the baby in it, she handed him to Brianna.

“Hold him a moment while I deal with the cord, will you, darling?” she said, pulling scissors and thread from her kit. “Then you can clean him off a bit—there’s a bottle of oil in here—while I take care of Lizzie. And you lot,” she added, glancing sternly at the Beardsleys, “go outside.”

The baby moved suddenly inside his wrappings, startling Brianna with the sudden vivid recollection of tiny, solid limbs pushing from inside: a kick to the liver, the liquid swell and shift as head or buttocks pressed up in a hard, smooth curve beneath her ribs.

“Hallo, little guy,” she said softly, cuddling him against her shoulder. He smelled strongly and strangely of the sea, she thought, and oddly fresh against the acrid pungency of the hides outside.

“Ooh!” Lizzie gave a startled squeal, as Claire kneaded her belly, and there was a juicy, slithering sort of sound. Brianna remembered that vividly, too; the placenta, that liverish, slippery afterthought of birth, almost soothing as it passed over the much-abused tissues with a sense of peaceful completion. All over, and the stunned mind began to comprehend survival.

There was a gasp from the doorway, and she looked up to see the Beardsleys, side by side and saucer-eyed.

“Shoo!” she said firmly, and flipped a hand at them. They promptly disappeared, leaving her to the entertaining task of cleaning and oiling the flailing limbs and creased body. He was a small baby, but round: round-faced, very round-eyed for a newborn—he hadn’t cried at all, but was plainly awake and alert—and with a round little belly, from which the stump of his umbilical cord protruded, dark purple and fresh.

His look of astonishment had not faded; he goggled up at her, solemn as a fish, though she could feel the huge smile on her own face.

“You are so cute!” she told him. He smacked his lips in a thoughtful sort of way, and crinkled his brow.

“He’s hungry!” she called over her shoulder. “Are you ready?”

“Ready?” Lizzie croaked. “Mother of God, how can ye be ready for something like this?”, which made Claire and Brianna both laugh like loons.

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