A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 73

   

Nonetheless, Lizzie reached for the little blue-wrapped bundle and put it uncertainly to her breast. There was a certain amount of fumbling and increasingly anxious grunts from the baby, but at last a suitable connection was established, making Lizzie utter a brief shriek of surprise, and everyone breathed a sigh of relief.

At this point, Brianna became aware that there had been conversation going on outside for some time—a mutter of male voices, deliberately pitched low, in a confusion of speculation and puzzlement.

“I imagine you can let them in now. Then put the griddle in the fire, if you would.” Claire, beaming fondly at mother and child, was mixing the neglected batter.

Brianna poked her head out of the cabin door, to find Jo, Kezzie, her own father, Roger, and Jemmy, clustered in a knot a little distance away. They all glanced up when they saw her, with expressions ranging from vaguely shamefaced pride to simple excitement.

“Mama! Is the baby here?” Jem rushed up, pushing to get past her into the cabin, and she grabbed him by the collar.

“Yes. You can come see him, but you have to be quiet. He’s very new, and you don’t want to scare him, all right?”

“Him?” one of the Beardsleys asked, excited. “It’s a boy?”

“I told ye so!” his brother said, nudging him in the ribs. “I said I saw a wee prick!”

“You don’t say things like ‘prick’ in front of ladies,” Jem informed him severely, turning to frown at him. “And Mama says be quiet!”

“Oh,” said the Beardsley twin, abashed. “Oh, aye, to be sure.”

Moving with an exaggerated caution that made her want to laugh, the twins tiptoed into the cabin, followed by Jem, Jamie’s hand firm on his shoulder, and Roger.

“Is Lizzie all right?” he asked softly, pausing to kiss her briefly in passing.

“A little overwhelmed, I think, but fine.”

Lizzie was in fact sitting up, soft blond hair now combed and shining around her shoulders, glowing with happiness at Jo and Kezzie, who knelt at her bedside, grinning like apes.

“May the blessing of Bride and of Columba be on you, young woman,” Jamie said formally in Gaelic, bowing to her, “and may the love of Christ sustain you always in your motherhood. May milk spring from your br**sts like water from the rock and may you rest secure in the arms of your”—he coughed briefly, glancing at the Beardsleys—“husband.”

“If you can’t say ‘prick,’ why can you say ‘breasts’?” Jemmy inquired, interested.

“Ye can’t, unless it’s a prayer,” his father informed him. “Grandda was giving Lizzie a blessing.”

“Oh. Are there any prayers with pricks in them?”

“I’m sure there are,” Roger replied, carefully avoiding Brianna’s eye, “but ye don’t say them out loud. Why don’t ye go and help Grannie with the breakfast?”

The iron griddle was sizzling with fat, and the fragrant smell of fresh batter filled the room as Claire began to pour spoonfuls onto the hot metal.

Jamie and Roger, having presented their compliments to Lizzie, had stepped back a bit, to give the little family a moment to themselves—though the cabin was so small, there was barely room for everyone to fit inside.

“You are so beautiful,” Jo—or possibly Kezzie—whispered, touching her hair with an awed forefinger. “Ye look like the new moon, Lizzie.”

“Did it hurt ye very much, sweetheart?” murmured Kezzie—or maybe Jo—stroking the back of her hand.

“Not so much,” she said, stroking Kezzie’s hand, then lifting her palm to cup Jo’s cheek. “Look. Is he no the bonniest wee creature ye’ve ever seen?” The baby had drunk his fill and fallen asleep; he let go the nipple with an audible pop! and rolled back in his mother’s arm like a dormouse, mouth a little open.

The twins made identical soft sounds of awe, and looked doe-eyed at their—well, what else could one say? Brianna thought—their son.

“Oh, such dear wee fingers!” Kezzie—or Jo—breathed, touching the little pink fist with a dirty forefinger.

“Is he all there?” Jo—or Kezzie—asked. “Ye’ve looked?”

“I have,” Lizzie assured him. “Here—d’ye want to hold him?” Not pausing for assent, she put the bundle into his arms. Whichever twin it was looked at once thrilled and terrified, and glanced wildly at his brother for support.

Brianna, enjoying the tableau, felt Roger close behind her.

“Aren’t they sweet?” she whispered, reaching back for his hand.

“Oh, aye,” he said, a smile in his voice. “Enough to make ye want another, isn’t it?”

It was an innocent remark; she could tell he had meant nothing by it—but he heard the echo, even as she did, and coughed, letting go her hand.

“Here—that’s for Lizzie.” Claire was handing a plate of fragrant cakes, drizzled with butter and honey, to Jem. “Is anyone else hungry?”

The general stampede in response to this enabled Brianna to hide her feelings, but they were still there—and painfully clear, if still tangled.

Yes, she did want another baby, thank you, she thought fiercely at Roger’s oblivious back. In the instant of holding the newborn child, she wanted it with a yearning of flesh that surpassed hunger or thirst. And she would have loved to blame him for the fact that it hadn’t happened yet.

It had taken a true leap of faith, across the vertiginous abyss of knowledge, for her to put aside her dauco seeds, those fragile pellets of protection. But she’d done it. And nothing. Lately, she’d been thinking uneasily of what Ian had told her about his wife and their struggles to conceive. True, she had suffered no miscarriage, and was profoundly grateful for that. But the part he had told her, where their lovemaking became more mechanical and desperate—that was beginning to loom like a specter in the distance. It hadn’t gotten that bad yet—but more often than not, she turned into Roger’s arms, thinking, Now? Will it be this time? But it never was.

The twins were becoming more comfortable with their offspring, their dark heads pressed close together, tracing the chubby outlines of his sleeping features and wondering aloud who he most resembled, of all idiotic things.

Lizzie was single-mindedly devouring her second plate of hoecakes, accompanied by grilled sausages. The smell was wonderful, but Brianna wasn’t hungry.

It was a good thing that they knew for sure, she told herself, watching Roger take his turn to hold the baby, his dark, lean face softening. If there had still been any doubt that Jemmy was Roger’s child, he would have blamed himself as Ian did, thought there was something wrong with him. As it was . . .

Had something happened to her? she wondered uneasily. Had Jemmy’s birth damaged something?

Jamie was holding the new baby now, one big hand cradling the round little head, smiling down with that look of soft affection so peculiar—and endearing—to men. She did long to see that look on Roger’s face, holding his own newborn child.

“Mr. Fraser.” Lizzie, filled at last with sausages, put aside her empty plate and leaned forward, looking earnestly up at Jamie. “My father. Does—does he know?” She couldn’t help glancing at the empty doorway behind him.

Jamie looked momentarily disconcerted.

“Ah,” he said, and handed the baby carefully to Roger, clearly taking advantage of the pause to try to think of some less-hurtful way to phrase the truth.

“Aye, he kens the babe was on the way,” he said carefully. “I told him.”

And he had not come. Lizzie’s lips pressed together, and a shadow of unhappiness crossed the new-moon glow of her face.

“Had we—had I—one of us—best go and tell him, sir?” one of the twins asked hesitantly. “That the child’s here, I mean, and . . . and that Lizzie’s all right.”

Jamie hesitated, clearly uncertain whether that would be a good idea or not. Mr. Wemyss, pale and ill-looking, had not referred to his daughter, his putative sons-in-law, or his theoretical grandchild since the imbroglio surrounding Lizzie’s multiple weddings. Now that the grandchild was a concrete fact, though . . .

“Whatever he thinks he ought to do,” Claire said, her face slightly troubled, “he’ll want to know that they’re all right, surely.”

“Oh, aye,” Jamie agreed. He glanced dubiously at the twins. “I’m just no entirely sure it should be Jo or Kezzie to tell him, though.”

The twins exchanged a long glance, in which some decision seemed to be reached.

“It should, sir,” one of them said firmly, turning to Jamie. “The baby’s ourn, but it’s his blood, too. That’s a link between us; he’ll know that.”

“We don’t want him to be crosswise with Lizzie, sir,” his brother said, more soft-spoken. “It hurts her. Might be the baby would . . . ease things, d’ye think?”

Jamie’s face betrayed nothing other than a studied attention to the matter at hand, but Brianna saw him dart a quick glance at Roger before returning his gaze to the bundle in Roger’s arm, and she hid a smile. He had certainly not forgotten his own acrimonious first response to Roger, but it had been Roger’s claiming of Jem that had established the first—and very fragile—link in the chain of acceptance that she thought now bound Roger nearly as close to Jamie’s heart as she herself.

“Aye, then,” Jamie said, still reluctant. He very much disliked being involved in this situation, she could tell—but hadn’t yet succeeded in figuring out any way of dealing with it. “Go and tell him. Just the one of ye, though! And should he come, t’other of ye keep well out of his sight, d’ye hear me?”

“Oh, aye, sir,” both of them assured him in unison. Jo—or Kezzie—frowned a little at the bundle, and hesitantly extended his arms. “Should I—”

“No, don’t.” Lizzie was sitting bolt upright, her arms braced to keep her weight off her tender nether parts. Her small fair brow was set in a frown of determination. “Tell him we’re well, aye. But if he wants to see the bairn—he’ll come, and welcome. But if he’ll no set foot upon my threshold . . . well, then, he’s no welcome to see his grandson. Tell him,” she repeated, easing herself back upon her pillows.

“Now give my bairnie to me.” She held out her arms, and clutched the sleeping baby to her, closing her eyes against any possibility of argument or reproach.

78

THE UNIVERSAL

BROTHERHOOD OF MAN

BRIANNA LIFTED THE WAXED CLOTH covering one of the big earthenware basins, and sniffed, taking pleasure in the musty, turned-earth smell. She stirred the pale mess with a stick, lifting it out periodically in order to assess the texture of the pulp that dripped from it.

Not bad. Another day, and it would be dissolved enough to press. She considered whether to add more of the dilute sulfuric acid solution, but decided against it, and instead reached into the bowl at her side, filled with the limp petals of dogwood and redbud flowers gathered for her by Jemmy and Aidan. She scattered a handful of these delicately over the grayish pulp, stirred them in, then covered the bowl again. By tomorrow, they’d be no more than faint outlines, but still visible as shadows in the finished sheets of paper.

“I’d always heard that paper mills stank.” Roger made his way through the bushes toward her. “Perhaps they use something else in the making?”

“Be glad I’m not tanning hides,” she advised him. “Ian says the Indian women use dog turds for that.”

“So do European tanners; they just call the stuff ‘pure.’”

“Pure what?”

“Pure dog turds, I suppose,” he said with a shrug. “How’s it going?”

Coming up beside her, he looked with interest at her own small paper factory: a dozen big, fired-clay basins, each filled with scraps of used paper, worn-out scraps of silk and cotton, flax fibers, the soft pith of cattail reeds, and anything else she could get her hands on that might be useful, torn to shreds or ground small in a quern. She’d dug out a small seep, and laid one of her broken water pipes as a catch basin, to provide a convenient water supply; nearby, she’d built a platform of stone and wood, on which stood the framed silk screens in which she pressed the pulp.

There was a dead moth floating in the next bowl, and he reached to take it out, but she waved him away.

“Bugs drown in it all the time, but as long as they’re soft-bodied, it’s okay. Enough sulfuric acid”—she nodded at the bottle, stoppered with a bit of rag—“and they all just become part of the pulp: moths, butterflies, ants, gnats, lacewings . . . wings are the only things that won’t dissolve all the way. Lacewings look sort of pretty embedded in the paper, but not roaches.” She fished one of these out of a bowl and flicked it away into the bushes, then added a little more water from the gourd dipper, stirring.

“I’m not surprised. I stamped on one of them this morning; he flattened out, then popped back up and strolled off, smirking.” He paused a moment; he wanted to ask her something, she could tell, and she made an interrogative hum to encourage him.

“I was only wondering—would ye mind taking Jem up to the Big House after supper? Perhaps the two of ye spending the night?”

She looked at him in astonishment.

“What are you planning to do? Throw a stag party for Gordon Lindsay?” Gordon, a shy boy of about seventeen, was betrothed to a Quaker girl from Woolam’s Mill; he’d been round the day before to “thig”—beg small bits of household goods in preparation for his marriage.

“No girls popping out of cakes,” he assured her, “but it’s definitely men only. It’s the first meeting of the Fraser’s Ridge Lodge.”

“Lodge . . . what, Freemasons?” She squinted dubiously at him, but he nodded. The breeze had come up, and it whipped his black hair up on end; he smoothed it back with one hand.

“Neutral ground,” he explained. “I didna want to suggest holding meetings in either the Big House or Tom Christie’s place—not wanting to favor either side, ye might say.”

She nodded, seeing that.

“Okay. But why Freemasons?” She knew nothing whatever about Freemasons, save that they were some sort of secret society and that Catholics weren’t allowed to join.

She mentioned this particular point to Roger, who laughed.

“True,” he said “The Pope forbade it about forty years ago.”

“Why? What does the Pope have against Freemasons?” she asked, interested.

“It’s rather a powerful body. A good many men of power and influence belong—and it crosses international lines. I imagine the Pope’s actual concern is competition in terms of power-broking—though if I recall aright, his stated reason was that Freemasonry is too much like a religion itself. Oh, that, and they worship the Devil.”

He laughed.

“Ye did know your father started a Lodge at Ardsmuir, in the prison there?”

“Maybe he mentioned it; I don’t remember.”

“I did bring up the Catholic thing with him. He gave me one of those looks of his and said, ‘Aye, well, the Pope wasna in Ardsmuir Prison, and I was.’”

“Sounds reasonable to me,” she said, amused. “But then, I’m not the Pope. Did he say why? Da, I mean, not the Pope.”

“Sure—as a means of uniting the Catholics and Protestants imprisoned together. One of the principles of Freemasonry being the universal brotherhood of man, aye? And another being that ye don’t talk religion or politics in Lodge.”

“Oh, you don’t? What do you do in Lodge, then?”

“I can’t tell you. Not worshipping the Devil, though.”

She raised her eyebrows at him, and he shrugged.

“I can’t,” he repeated. “When ye join, you take an oath not to talk outside the Lodge about what’s done there.”

She was mildly miffed at that, but dismissed it, going back to add more water to one bowl. It looked as though someone had thrown up in it, she thought critically, and reached for the acid bottle.

“Sounds pretty fishy to me,” she remarked. “And kind of silly. Isn’t there something about secret handshakes, that sort of thing?”

He merely smiled, not bothered by her tone.

“I’m not saying there isn’t a bit of stage business involved. It’s more or less medieval in origin, and it’s kept quite a bit of the original trappings—rather like the Catholic Church.”

“Point taken,” she said dryly, picking up a ready bowl of pulp. “Okay. So, is it Da’s idea to start a Lodge here?”

“No, mine.” His voice lost its humorous tone, and she looked at him sharply.

“I need a way to give them common ground, Bree,” he said. “The women have it—the fishers’ wives sew and spin and knit and quilt wi’ the others, and if they privately think you or your mother or Mrs. Bug are heretics damned to hell, or goddamned Whigs, or whatever, it seems to make no great difference. But not the men.”

She thought of saying something about the relative intelligence and common sense of the two sexes, but feeling that this might be counterproductive just at the moment, nodded understanding. Besides, he obviously had no notion of the kind of gossip that went on in sewing circles.

“Hold that screen steady, will you?”

He obligingly grasped the wooden frame, pulling taut the edges of the finely drawn wire threaded through it, as instructed.

“So,” she said, spooning the thin gruel of the pulp onto the silk, “do you want me to provide milk and cookies for this affair tonight?”

She spoke with considerable irony, and he smiled across the screen at her.

“That’d be nice, aye.”

“I was joking!”

“I wasn’t.” He was still smiling, but with complete seriousness behind his eyes, and she realized suddenly that this wasn’t a whim. With an odd small twist of the heart, she saw her father standing there.

One had known the care of other men from his earliest years, a part of the duty of his birthright; the other had come to it later, but both felt that burden to be the will of God, she had no doubt at all—both accepted that duty without question, would honor it, or die in trying. She only hoped it wouldn’t come to that—for either of them.

“Give me one of your hairs,” she said, looking down to hide what she felt.

“Why?” he asked, but was plucking a strand from his head even as he spoke.

“The paper. The pulp shouldn’t be spread any thicker than a hair.” She laid the black thread at the edge of the silk screen, then spread the creamy liquid thin and thinner, so it flowed past the hair but did not cover it. It flowed with the liquid, a sinuous dark line through the white, like the tiny crack on the surface of her heart.

79

ALARMS

l’oignon–INTELLIGENCER

A MARRIAGE IS ANNOUNCED. The NEW BERN INTELLIGENCER, founded by Jno. Robinson, has ceased publication with the removal of its founder to Great Britain, but we assure its Customers that this Newspaper shall not vanish altogether, as its Premises, Stock, and Subscription Lists have been acquired by the Proprietors of THE ONION, that esteemed, popular, and Preeminent Journal. The New Periodical, Much Improved and Expanded, will henceforth appear as the L’OIGNON–INTELLIGENCER, distributed upon a Weekly Basis, with Extra Editions as events demand, these provided at a modest cost of One Penny. . . .

To Mr. and Mrs. James Fraser, of the Ridge,

North Carolina, from Mr. and Mrs. Fergus Fraser,

Thorpe Street, New Bern

Dear Father and Mother Claire:

I write to acquaint you with the latest Change in our Fortunes. Mr. Robinson, who had owned the other Newspaper in the town, found himself removed to Great Britain. Literally removed, as some Persons unknown, disguised as Savages, invaded his Shop in the early Hours of the Morning, and pulled him from his Bed, hurrying him to the Harbor and there thrusting him aboard a Ship, clad only in his Nightclothes and Cap.

The Captain promptly cast off his Tethers and made Sail, leaving the Town in some Uproar, as you may imagine.

Within a Day of Mr. Robinson’s abrupt Departure, though, we were visited by two separate Parties (I cannot write their Names, being discreet as you will appreciate). One of these was a Member of the local Committee of Safety—which everyone knows was behind Mr. Robinson’s Removal, but no one says so. He was civil in his Speech, but his manner was not so much. He wished, he said, to assure himself that Fergus did not share the Willfully Wrongheaded Sentiments so oft expressed by Mr. Robinson, regarding recent Events and Particulars.

Fergus told him with a very straight face that he would not chuse to share so much as a Glass of Wine with Mr. Robinson (which he could not, Mr. Robinson being Methody and against Drink), and the Gentleman took this to mean what he wished, and went away satisfied, and gave Fergus a Purse of Money.

Next thing comes another Gentleman, fat and most Important in the Affairs of the Town, and a Member of the Royal Council, though I did not know it at the time. His Errand was the Same—or rather, the Opposite: he wished to inquire whether Fergus was inclined to acquire Mr. Robinson’s Assets, so to continue his work on behalf of the King—that being the printing of some Letters, and the Suppression of Others.

Fergus says to this Gentleman, most grave, that he has always found Much to admire in Mr. Robinson (chiefly his horse, which is gray and very amiable, and the curious Buckles on his Shoes), but adding that we have barely Means to buy Ink and Paper, and so he feared we must resign ourselves to the Acquisition of Mr. Robinson’s Shop by a Person of no great Sensitivity in Politickal Matters.

I was myself in Terror, a State not improved when the Gentleman uttered a Laugh and took a fat Purse from his Pocket, remarking that one must not “spoil the ship for a happeny’s worth of tar.” He seemed to think this most amusing, and laughed quite immoderate, then patted Henri-Christian on the Head and went away.

So our Prospects are at once enlarged and alarming. I am fair sleepless, thinking on the Future, but Fergus is so much Improved in Spirits that I cannot regret it.

Pray for us, as we pray for you always, my Dear Parents.

Your Obedient and Loving Daughter,

Marsali

“You taught him well,” I remarked, trying to keep my voice casual.

“Evidently so.” Jamie looked slightly worried, but much more amused. “Dinna fash yourself over it, Sassenach. Fergus has some skill at this game.”

“It is not a game,” I said, with enough vehemence that he looked at me in surprise.

“It’s not,” I repeated, a little more calmly.

He raised his brows at me, and pulling a small sheaf of papers from the mess on his desk, handed them across.

WEDNESDAY MORNING

NEAR 10 OF THE CLOCK—WATERTOWN

To all the friends of American liberty be it known that this morning before break of day, a brigade, consisting of about 1,000 to 1,200 men landed at Phip’s Farm at Cambridge and marched to Lexington, where they found a company of our colony militia in arms, upon whom they fired without any provocation and killed six men and wounded four others. By an express from Boston, we find another brigade are now upon their march from Boston supposed to be about 1,000. The Bearer, Israel Bissell, is charged to alarm the country quite to Connecticut and all persons are desired to furnish him with fresh horses as they may be needed. I have spoken with several persons who have seen the dead and wounded. Pray let the delegates from this colony to Connecticut see this.

J. Palmer, one of the Committee of Safety.

They know Col. Foster of Brookfield one of the Delegates.

Beneath this message was a list of signatures, though most were done in the same handwriting. The first read A true copy taken from the original per order of the Committee of Correspondence for Worcester—April 19, 1775. Attest. Nathan Baldwin, Town Clerk. All the others were preceded by similar statements.

“I will be damned,” I said. “It’s the Lexington Alarm.” I glanced up at Jamie, wide-eyed. “Where did you get it?”

“One of Colonel Ashe’s men brought it.” He shuffled to the end of the last sheet, pointing out John Ashe’s endorsement. “What is the Lexington Alarm?”

“That.” I looked at it with fascination. “After the battle at Lexington, General Palmer—he’s a general of militia—wrote this and sent it through the countryside by an express rider, to bear witness to what had happened; to notify the militias nearby that the war had started.

“Men along the way took copies of it, endorsed them to swear that they were true copies, and sent the message along to other townships and villages; there were probably hundreds of copies made at the time, and quite a few survived. Frank had one that someone gave him as a present. He kept it in a frame, in the front hall of our house in Boston.”

Then a quite extraordinary shudder went through me, as I realized that the familiar letter I was looking at had in fact been written only a week or two before—not two hundred years.

Jamie was looking a little pale, too.

“This—it’s what Brianna told me would happen,” he said, a tone of wonder in his voice. “Upon the nineteenth of April, a fight in Lexington—the start of the war.” He looked straight at me, and I saw that his eyes were dark, with a combination of awe and excitement.

“I did believe ye, Sassenach,” he said. “But . . .”

He didn’t finish the sentence, but sat down, reaching for his quill. With slow deliberation, he signed his name at the foot of the page.

“Ye’ll make me a fair copy, Sassenach?” he said. “I’ll send it on.”

80

THE WORLD TURNED

UPSIDE DOWN

COLONEL ASHE’S MAN HAD also brought word of a congress to be held in Mecklenberg County, to take place in mid-May, with the intent to declare the county’s official independence from the King of England.

Aware of the fact that he was still viewed with skepticism by not a few leaders of what had now suddenly become “the rebellion,” despite the stout personal support of John Ashe and a few other friends, Jamie made up his mind to attend this congress and speak openly in support of the measure.

Roger, absolutely blazing with suppressed excitement at this, his first chance to witness recorded history in the making, was to go with him.

A few days before their scheduled departure, though, everyone’s attention was distracted from the prospect of history by the more immediate present: the entire Christie family arrived suddenly at the front door, soon after breakfast.

Something had happened; Allan Christie was flushed with agitation, Tom grim and gray as an old wolf. Malva had clearly been crying, and her face went red and white by turns. I greeted her, but she looked away from me, lips trembling, as Jamie invited them into his study, gesturing them to sit.

“What is it, Tom?” He glanced briefly at Malva—plainly she was the focus of this family emergency—but gave his attention to Tom, as patriarch.

Tom Christie’s mouth was pressed so tight that it was barely visible in the depths of his neatly clipped beard.

“My daughter finds herself with child,” he said abruptly.

“Oh?” Jamie cast another brief glance at Malva—who stood with capped head bowed, looking down at her clasped hands—then looked at me with a raised eyebrow. “Ah. Well . . . there’s a good bit of it going about, to be sure,” he said, and smiled kindly, in an effort to ease the Christies, all of whom were quivering like beads on a tight-pulled wire.

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