A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 74

   

I was myself less than startled to hear the news, though naturally concerned. Malva had always attracted a great deal of attention from young men, and while both her brother and father had been vigilant in preventing any open courting, the only way of keeping young men away altogether would have been to lock her in a dungeon.

Who had the successful suitor been? I wondered. Obadiah Henderson? Bobby, perhaps? One of the McMurchie brothers? Not—please God—both of them, I hoped. All of these—and not a few others—had been obvious in their admiration.

Tom Christie received Jamie’s attempt at pleasantry with stony silence, though Allan made a poor attempt at a smile. He was nearly as pale as his sister.

Jamie coughed.

“Well, so. Is there some way in which I might help, then, Tom?”

“She says,” Christie began gruffly, with a piercing look at his daughter, “that she will not name the man, save in your presence.” He turned the look on Jamie, thick with dislike.

“In my presence?” Jamie coughed again, clearly embarrassed at the obvious implication—that Malva thought her male relatives would either beat her or proceed to do violence upon her lover, unless the presence of the landlord constrained them. Personally, I thought that particular fear was probably well founded, and gave Tom Christie a narrow look of my own. Had he already tried, and failed, to beat the truth out of her?

Malva was not making any attempt at divulging the name of the father of her child, Jamie’s presence notwithstanding. She merely pleated her apron between her fingers, over and over, eyes fixed on her hands.

I cleared my throat delicately.

“How—um—how far gone are you, my dear?”

She didn’t answer directly, but pressed both hands, shaking, against her apron front, smoothing down the cloth so that the round bulge of her pregnancy was suddenly visible, smooth and melonlike, surprisingly large. Six months, perhaps; I was startled. Clearly, she’d delayed telling her father for as long as she possibly could—and hidden it well.

The silence was well beyond awkward. Allan shifted uncomfortably on his stool, and leaned forward to murmur reassuringly to his sister.

“It’ll be all right, Mallie,” he whispered. “Ye’ve got to say, though.”

She took a huge gulp of air at that, and raised her head. Her eyes were reddened, but still very beautiful, and wide with apprehension.

“Oh, sir,” she said, but then stopped dead.

Jamie was by now looking nearly as uncomfortable as the Christies, but did his best to keep his air of kindness.

“Will ye not tell me, then, lass?” he said, as gently as possible. “I promise ye’ll not suffer for it.”

Tom Christie made an irritable noise, like some beast of prey disturbed at its meal, and Malva went very pale indeed, but her eyes stayed fixed on Jamie.

“Oh, sir,” she said, and her voice was small but clear as a bell, ringing with reproach. “Oh, sir, how can ye say that to me, when ye ken the truth as well as I do?” Before anyone could react to that, she turned to her father, and lifting a hand, pointed directly at Jamie.

“It was him,” she said.

I HAVE NEVER BEEN SO grateful for anything in life as for the fact that I was looking at Jamie’s face when she said it. He had no warning, no chance to control his features—and he didn’t. His face showed neither anger nor fear, denial or surprise; nothing save the open-mouthed blankness of absolute incomprehension.

“What?” he said, and blinked, once. Then realization flooded into his face.

“WHAT?” he said, in a tone that should have knocked the little trollop flat on her lying little bottom.

She blinked then, and cast down her eyes, the very picture of virtue shamed. She turned, as though unable to bear his gaze, and stretched out a tremulous hand toward me.

“I’m so sorry, Mrs. Fraser,” she whispered, tears trembling becomingly on her lashes. “He—we—we didna mean to hurt ye.”

I watched with interest from somewhere outside my body, as my arm lifted and drew back, and felt a sense of vague approval as my hand struck her cheek with enough force that she stumbled backward, tripped over a stool, and fell, her petticoats tumbled up to her waist in a froth of linen, wool-stockinged legs sticking absurdly up in the air.

“Can’t say the same, I’m afraid.” I hadn’t even thought of saying anything, and was surprised to feel the words in my mouth, cool and round as river stones.

Suddenly, I was back in my body. I felt as though my stays had tightened during my temporary absence; my ribs ached with the effort to breathe. Liquid surged in every direction; blood and lymph, sweat and tears—if I did draw breath, my skin would give way and let it all spurt out, like the contents of a ripe tomato, thrown against a wall.

I had no bones. But I had will. That alone held me upright and saw me out the door. I didn’t see the corridor or realize that I had pushed open the front door of the house; all I saw was a sudden blaze of light and a blur of green in the dooryard and then I was running, running as though all the demons of hell coursed at my heels.

In fact, no one pursued me. And yet I ran, plunging off the trail and into the wood, feet sliding in the layers of slippery needles down the runnels between stones, half-falling down the slope of the hill, caroming painfully off fallen logs, wrenching free of thorns and brush.

I arrived breathless at the bottom of a hill and found myself in a dark, small hollow walled by the towering black-green of rhododendrons. I paused, gasping for breath, then sat down abruptly. I felt myself wobble, and let go, ending on my back among the dusty layers of leathery mountain laurel leaves.

A faint thought echoed in my mind, under the sound of my gasping breath. The guilty flee, where no man pursues. But I surely wasn’t guilty. Nor was Jamie; I knew that. Knew it.

But Malva was certainly pregnant. Someone was guilty.

My eyes were blurred from running and the sunlight starred into fractured slabs and streaks of color—dark blue, light blue, white and gray, pinwheels of green and gold as the cloudy sky and the mountainside spun round and round above me.

I blinked hard, unshed tears sliding down my temples.

“Bloody, bloody, f**king hell,” I said very softly. “Now what?”

JAMIE STOOPED WITHOUT thought, seized the girl by the elbows, and hauled her unceremoniously to her feet. Her one cheek bore a crimson patch where Claire had struck her, and for an instant, he had a strong urge to give her one to match on the other side.

He hadn’t the chance either to quell that desire or to execute it; a hand seized his shoulder to yank him round, and it was reflex alone that made him dodge aside as Allan Christie’s fist glanced off the side of his head, catching him painfully on the tip of the ear. He pushed the young man hard in the chest with both hands, then hooked a heel behind his calf as he staggered, and Allan dropped on his backside with a thud that shook the room.

Jamie stepped back, a hand to his throbbing ear, and glared at Tom Christie, who was standing staring at him like Lot’s wife.

Jamie’s free left hand was clenched in a fist, and he raised it a little, in invitation. Christie’s eyes narrowed further, but he made no move toward Jamie.

“Get up,” Christie said to his son. “And keep your fists to yourself. There’s nay need for that now.”

“Isn’t there?” cried the lad, scrambling to his feet. “He’s made a whore of your daughter, and you’ll let him stand? Well, and ye’ll play coward, auld man, I’ll not!”

He lunged at Jamie, wild-eyed, hands grabbing for his throat. Jamie stepped to the side, shifted weight back on one leg, and hooked the lad in the liver with a vicious left that drove his wame into his backbone and doubled him over with a whoof. Allan stared up at him, open-mouthed and the whites of his eyes showing all round, then subsided onto his knees with a thud, mouth opening and closing like a fish’s.

It might have been comical under other circumstances, but Jamie felt no disposition to laugh. He wasted no more time on either of the men, but swung round on Malva.

“So, what mischief is this ye’re about, nighean na galladh?” he said to her. It was a serious insult, and Tom Christie knew what it meant, Gaelic or not; Jamie could see Christie stiffen, in the corner of his eye.

The girl herself was already in tears, and burst into sobs at this.

“How can ye speak to me so?” she wailed, and clutched her apron to her face. “How can ye be so cruel?”

“Oh, for God’s sake,” he said crossly. He shoved a stool in her direction. “Sit, ye wee loon, and we’ll hear the truth of whatever ye think ye’re up to. Mr. Christie?” He glanced at Tom, nodded toward another stool, and went to take his own chair, ignoring Allan, who had collapsed onto the floor and was curled up on his side like a kitten, holding his belly.

“Sir?”

Mrs. Bug, hearing the racket, had come out from her kitchen, and was standing in the doorway, eyes wide under her cap.

“Will ye . . . be needin’ anything, sir?” she asked, making no pretense of not staring from Malva, red-faced and sobbing on her stool, to Allan, white and gasping on the floor.

Jamie thought that he needed a strong dram—or maybe two—but that would have to wait.

“I thank ye, Mrs. Bug,” he said politely, “but no. We’ll bide.” He lifted his fingers in dismissal, and she faded reluctantly from view. She hadn’t gone far, though, he knew, just round the edge of the door.

He rubbed a hand over his face, wondering what it was about young girls these days. It was a full moon tonight; perhaps they truly did run lunatic.

On the other hand, the wee bitch had undoubtedly been playing the loon with someone; with her apron up like that, the bairn was showing plainly, a hard round swell like a calabash under her thin petticoat.

“How long?” he asked Christie, with a nod toward her.

“Six months gone,” Christie said, and sank reluctantly onto the offered stool. He was dour as Jamie had ever seen him, but in control of himself, that was something.

“It was when the sickness came late last summer; when I was here, helping to nurse his wife!” Malva burst out, lowering her apron and staring reproachfully at her father, full lip a-tremble. “And not just the once, either!” She switched her gaze back to Jamie, wet-eyed and pleading. “Tell them, sir, please—tell them the truth!”

“Oh, I mean to,” he said, giving her a black look. “And ye’ll do the same, lass, I assure ye.”

The shock of it was beginning to fade, and while his sense of irritation remained—in fact, it was growing by the moment—he was beginning to think, and furiously.

She was pregnant by someone grossly unsuitable; that much was clear. Who? Christ, he wished Claire had stayed; she listened to the gossip on the Ridge and she took interest in the lass; she’d know which young men were likely prospects. He’d seldom noticed young Malva particularly himself, save she was always about, helping Claire.

“The first time was when Herself was so ill as we despaired of her life,” Malva said, snapping him back to attention. “I told ye, Faither. It wasna rape—only Himself being off his heid wi’ the sorrow of it, and me, as well.” She blinked, a pearly tear sliding down the unmarked cheek. “I came down from her room late at night, to find him in here, sitting in the dark, and grieving. I felt so sorry for him. . . .” Her voice shook, and she stopped, swallowing.

“I asked could I fetch him a wee bite, maybe something to drink—but he’d drink taken already, there was whisky in a glass before him. . . .”

“And I said no, thank ye kindly, and that I’d be alone,” Jamie broke in, feeling the blood begin to surge in his temples at her recounting. “Ye left.”

“No, I didn’t.” She shook her head; the cap had come half off when she fell and she hadn’t settled it again; dark tendrils of hair hung down, framing her face. “Or rather, ye did say that to me, that ye’d be alone. But I couldn’t bear to see ye in such straits, and—I know ’twas forward and unseemly, but I did pity ye so much!” she burst out, looking up and then immediately dropping her gaze again.

“I . . . I came and touched him,” she whispered, so low that he had trouble hearing her. “Put my hand on his shoulder, like, only to comfort him. But he turned then, and put his arms round me, all of a sudden and grasped me to him. And—and then . . .” She gulped, audibly.

“He . . . he took me. Just . . . there.” The toe of one small buskin stretched out, pointing delicately at the rag rug just in front of the table. Where there was, in fact, a small and ancient brown stain, which might have been blood. It was blood—Jemmy’s, left when the wee lad had tripped on the rug and bumped his nose so it bled.

He opened his mouth to speak, but was so choked by outraged amazement that nothing emerged but a sort of gasp.

“So ye’ve not the balls to deny it, eh?” Young Allan had recovered his breath; he was swaying on his knees, hair hanging in his face, and glaring. “Balls enough to do it, though!”

Jamie gave Allan a quelling look, but didn’t bother replying to him. He turned his attention instead to Tom Christie.

“Is she mad?” he inquired. “Or only clever?”

Christie’s face might have been carved in stone, save for the pouchy flesh quivering beneath his eyes, and the eyes themselves, bloodshot and narrowed.

“She’s not mad,” Christie said.

“A clever liar, then.” Jamie narrowed his own eyes at her. “Clever enough to ken no one would believe a tale of rape.”

Her mouth opened in horror.

“Oh, no, sir,” she said, and shook her head so hard the dark curls danced by her ears. “I should never say such a thing of ye, never!” She swallowed, and timidly raised her eyes to meet his—swollen with weeping, but a soft dove gray, guileless with innocence.

“Ye needed comfort,” she said, softly but clearly. “I gave it ye.”

He pinched the bridge of his nose hard betwixt thumb and forefinger, hoping the sensation would wake him from what was plainly nightmare. This failing to occur, he sighed and looked at Tom Christie.

“She’s with child by someone, and not by me,” he said bluntly. “Who might it have been?”

“It was you!” the girl protested, letting her apron fall as she sat bolt upright on her stool. “There’s no one else!”

Christie’s eyes slid reluctantly toward his daughter, then came back to meet Jamie’s. They were the same dove gray, but they’d never possessed any trace of either guilelessness or innocence.

“I know of no one,” he said. He took a deep breath, squaring his stocky shoulders. “She says it wasn’t just the once. That ye had her a dozen times or more.” His voice was nearly colorless, but not from lack of feeling, rather, from the grip he had upon his feelings.

“Then she’s lied a dozen times or more,” Jamie said, keeping his own voice under as much control as Christie’s.

“Ye know I have not! Your wife believes me,” Malva said, and a steely note had entered her voice. She lifted a hand to her cheek, where the flaming color had subsided but where the print of Claire’s fingers was still clear, livid in outline.

“My wife has better sense,” he said coldly, but was conscious all the same of a sinking sensation at the mention of Claire. Any woman might find such an accusation shock enough to make her flee—but he did wish that she’d stayed. Her presence, stoutly denying any misbehavior by him and personally rebuking Malva’s lies, would have helped.

“Does she?” The vivid color had faded from the girl’s face altogether, but she had stopped weeping. She was white-faced, her eyes huge and brilliant. “Well, I’ve sense, as well, sir. Sense enough to prove what I say.”

“Oh, aye?” he said skeptically. “How?”

“I’ve seen the scars on your nak*d body; I can describe them.”

That declaration brought everyone up short. There was silence for a moment, broken by Allan Christie’s grunt of satisfaction. He rose to his feet, one hand still pressed to his middle, but an unpleasant smile upon his face.

“So, then?” he said. “Nay answer to that one, have ye?”

Irritation had long since given way to a monstrous anger. Under that, though, was the barest thread of something he would not—not yet—call fear.

“I dinna put my scars on display,” he said mildly, “but there are a number of folk who’ve seen them, nonetheless. I havena lain with any of them, either.”

“Aye, folk speak sometimes of the scars on your back,” Malva shot back. “And everyone kens the great ugly one up your leg, that ye took at Culloden. But what of the crescent-shaped one across your ribs? Or the wee one on your left hurdie?” She reached a hand behind her, cupping her own buttock in illustration.

“Not in the center, quite—a bit down, on the outer side. About the size of a farthing.” She didn’t smile, but something like triumph blazed in her eyes.

“I havena got—” he began, but then stopped, appalled. Christ, he did. A spider’s bite, taken in the Indies, that festered for a week, made an abscess, then burst, to his great relief. Once healed, he’d never thought of it again—but it was there.

Too late. They’d seen the realization cross his face.

Tom Christie closed his eyes, jaw working under his beard. Allan grunted again with satisfaction, and crossed his arms.

“Want to show us she’s wrong?” the young man inquired sarcastically. “Take down your breeks, and gie us a look at your backside, then!”

With a good deal of effort, he kept himself from telling Allan Christie what he could do with his own backside. He took a long, slow breath, hoping that by the time he let it out again, some useful thought would have come to him.

It didn’t. Tom Christie opened his eyes with a sigh.

“So,” he said flatly. “I suppose ye’ll not intend to put aside your wife and marry her?”

“I should never do such a thing!” The suggestion filled him with fury—and something like panic at the mere notion of being without Claire.

“Then we’ll draw a contract.” Christie rubbed a hand over his face, shoulders slumped with exhaustion and distaste. “Maintenance for her and the bairn. Formal acknowledgment of the child’s rights as one of your heirs. Ye can decide, I suppose, if ye wish to take it for your wife to rear, but that—”

“Get out.” He rose, very slowly, and leaned forward, hands on the table, eyes fixed on Christie’s. “Take your daughter and leave my house.”

Christie stopped speaking and looked at him, black-browed. The girl had started grieving again, making whimpering noises into her apron. He’d the odd feeling that time had stopped, somehow; they would all just be trapped here forever, himself and Christie staring each other down like dogs, unable to look down but knowing that the floor of the room had vanished beneath their feet and they hung suspended over some dreadful abyss, in the endless moment before the fall.

It was Allan Christie who broke it, of course. The movement of the young man’s hand going to his knife freed Jamie’s gaze from Christie’s, and his fingers tightened, digging into the wood of the table. An instant before, he’d felt bodiless; now blood hammered in his temples and pulsed through his limbs and his muscles trembled with an urgent need to damage Allan Christie. And wring his sister’s neck to stop her noise, as well.

Allan Christie’s face was black with anger, but he’d sense enough—barely, Jamie thought—not to draw the knife.

“I should like nothing better, wee man, than to gie ye your heid in your hands to play with,” he said softly. “Leave now, before I do it.”

Young Christie licked his lips and tensed himself, knucklebones going white on the hilt—but his eyes wavered. He glanced at his father, who sat like a stone, grim-jowled and square. The light had changed; it shone from the side and through the grizzled tufts of Christie’s beard, so his own scar showed, a thin pink rope that curled like a snake above his jaw.

Christie straightened slowly, pushing himself up with his hands on his thighs, then shook his head suddenly like a dog shaking off water and stood up. He gripped Malva by the arm, lifted her from her stool, and pushed her before him, weeping and stumbling on the way out.

Allan followed them, making occasion to brush so near to Jamie as he left that Jamie could smell the younger man’s stink, ripe with fury. Young Christie cast a single angry glance back over his shoulder, hand still on his knife—but left. Their tread in the hall made the floorboards tremble under Jamie’s feet, and then came the heavy slam of the door.

He looked down, then, vaguely surprised to see the battered surface of his table and his own hands still flattened there as if they’d grown to it. He straightened up and his fingers curled, the stiff joints painful as they made themselves into fists. He was drenched with sweat.

Lighter footsteps came down the hall then, and Mrs. Bug came in with a tray. She set it down before him, curtsied to him, and went out. The single crystal goblet that he owned was stood on it, and the decanter that held the good whisky.

He felt obscurely that he wanted to laugh, but couldn’t quite remember how it was done. The light touched the decanter and the drink within glowed like a chrysoberyl. He touched the glass gently in acknowledgment of Mrs. Bug’s loyalty, but that would have to wait. The Devil was loose in the world and there’d be hell to pay, surely. Before he did aught else, he must find Claire.

AFTER A TIME, the drifting clouds boiled up into thunderheads, and a cold breeze moved over the top of the hollow, shaking the laurels overhead with a rattling like dry bones. Very slowly, I got to my feet and began to climb.

I had no sure destination in mind; didn’t care, really, if I were wet or not. I only knew that I couldn’t go back to the house. As it was, I came to the trail that led to the White Spring, just as rain began to fall. Huge drops splattered on the leaves of pokeweed and burdock, and the firs and pines let go their long-held breath in a fragrant sigh.

The patter of drops on leaves and branches was punctuated by the muffled thud of heavier drops striking deep into soft earth—hail was coming with the rain, and suddenly there were tiny white particles of ice bouncing crazily on the packed needles, peppering my face and neck with stinging cold.

I ran, then, and took shelter beneath the drooping branches of a balsam fir that overhung the spring. The hail pocked the water and made it dance, but melted on impact, disappearing at once into the dark water. I sat still, arms wrapped around myself against the chill, shivering.

You could almost understand, said the part of my mind that had begun talking somewhere on the journey up the hill. Everyone thought you were dying—including you. You know what happens . . . you’ve seen it. People under the terrible strain of grief, those dealing with the presence of overwhelming death—I’d seen it. It was a natural seeking of solace; an attempt to hide, only for a moment, to deny death’s coldness by taking comfort in the simple warmth of bodily contact.

“But he didn’t,” I said stubbornly, out loud. “If he had, and that was it—I could forgive him. But God damn it, he didn’t!”

My subconscious subsided in the face of this certainty, but I was aware of subterranean stirrings—not suspicions, nothing strong enough to be called doubts. Only small, cool observations that poked their heads above the surface of my own dark well like spring peepers, high, thin pipings that were barely audible individually but that together might eventually form a racket of sound to shake the night.

You’re an old woman.

See how the veins stand out on your hands.

The flesh has fallen away from your bones; your br**sts sag.

If he were desperate, needing comfort . . .

He might reject her, but could never turn away from a child of his blood.

I closed my eyes and fought a rising sense of nausea. The hail had passed, succeeded by heavy rain, and cold steam began to rise from the ground, vapor drifting upward, disappearing like ghosts into the downpour.

“No,” I said aloud. “No!”

I felt as though I had swallowed several large rocks, jagged and dirt-covered. It wasn’t just the thought that Jamie might—but that Malva had most certainly betrayed me. Had betrayed me if it were true—and still more, if it were not.

My apprentice. My daughter of the heart.

I was safe from the rain, but the air was thick with water; my garments grew damp and hung heavy on me, clammy on my skin. Through the rain, I could see the big white stone that stood at the head of the spring, that gave the pool its name. Here it was that Jamie had shed his blood in sacrifice, and dashed it on that rock, asking the help of the kinsman he had slain. And here it was that Fergus had lain down, opening his veins in despair for his son, his blood blooming dark in the silent water.

And I began to realize why I had come here, why the place had called me. It was a place to meet oneself, and find truth.

The rain passed, and the clouds broke. Slowly, the light began to fade.

IT WAS NEARLY DARK when he came. The trees were moving, restless with twilight and whispering among themselves; I didn’t hear his footsteps on the sodden trail. He was just there, suddenly, at the edge of the clearing.

He stood searching; I saw his head lift when he saw me, and then he strode round the pool and ducked under the overhanging branches of my shelter. He’d been out for some time, I saw; his coat was wet and the cloth of his shirt plastered to his chest with rain and sweat. He’d brought a cloak with him, bundled under his arm, and he unfolded this and wrapped it round my shoulders. I let him.

He sat quite close to me then, arms wrapped about his knees, and stared into the darkening pool of the spring. The light had reached that point of beauty, just before all color fades, and the hairs of his eyebrows arched auburn and perfect over the solid ridges of his brows, each hair distinct, like the shorter, darker hairs of his sprouting beard.

He breathed long and deep, as though he had been walking for some time, and rubbed away a drop of moisture that dripped from the end of his nose. Once or twice, he took a shorter breath, as though about to say something, but didn’t.

The birds had come out briefly after the rain. Now they were going to their rest, cheeping softly in the trees.

“I do hope you were planning to say something,” I said finally, politely. “Because if you don’t, I’ll probably start screaming, and I might not be able to stop.”

He made a sound somewhere between amusement and dismay, and sank his face into the palms of his hands. He stayed that way for a moment, then rubbed his hands hard over his face and sat up, sighing.

“I have been thinking all the time I was searching for ye, Sassenach, what in God’s name I should say when I found ye. I thought of one thing and another—and . . . there seemed nothing whatever I could say.” He sounded helpless.

“How is that?” I asked, a distinct edge in my voice. “I could think of a few things to say, I daresay.”

He sighed, and made a brief gesture of frustration.

“What? To say I was sorry—that’s not right. I am sorry, but to say so—it sounds as though I’ve done something to be sorry for, and that I have not. But I thought to start off so would make ye maybe think . . .” He glanced at me. I was keeping a tight grip on both my face and my emotions, but he knew me very well. The instant he’d said, “I’m sorry,” my stomach had plunged toward my feet.

He looked away.

“There’s naught I can say,” he said quietly, “that doesna sound as though I try to defend or excuse myself. And I willna do that.”

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