A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 75

   

I made a small sound, as though someone had punched me in the stomach, and he glanced sharply at me.

“I won’t do it!” he said fiercely. “There is no way to deny such a charge that doesna carry the stink of doubt about it. And nothing I can say to you that doesna sound like some groveling apology for—for—well, I willna apologize for something I havena done, and if I did, ye’d only doubt me more.”

I was beginning to breathe a little easier.

“You don’t seem to have a lot of faith in my faith in you.”

He gave me a wary look.

“If I hadna got quite a lot of it, Sassenach, I wouldna be here.”

He watched me for a moment, then reached out and touched my hand. My fingers turned at once and curved to meet his, and our hands clasped tight. His fingers were big and cold and he held mine so tightly that I thought my bones would break.

He took a deep breath, almost a sob, and his shoulders, tight in his sodden coat, relaxed all at once.

“Ye didna think it true?” he asked. “Ye ran away.”

“It was a shock,” I said. And I’d thought, dimly, that if I stayed, I might just kill her.

“Aye, it was,” he said very dryly. “I expect I might have run away myself—if I could.”

A small twinge of guilt was added to the overload of emotions; I supposed my hasty exit couldn’t have helped the situation. He didn’t reproach me, though, but merely said again, “Ye didna think it true, though?”

“I don’t.”

“Ye don’t.” His eyes searched mine. “But ye did?”

“No.” I pulled the cloak closer round me, settling it on my shoulders. “I didn’t. But I didn’t know why.”

“And now ye do.”

I took a deep, deep breath of my own and let it go, then turned to face him, straight on.

“Jamie Fraser,” I said, with great deliberation. “If you could do such a thing as that—and I don’t mean lying with a woman, I mean doing it and lying to me about it—then everything I’ve done and everything I’ve been—my whole life—has been a lie. And I am not prepared to admit such a thing.”

That surprised him a little; it was nearly dark now, but I saw his eyebrows rise.

“What d’ye mean by that, Sassenach?”

I waved a hand up the trail, where the house lay invisible above us, then toward the spring, where the white stone stood, a blur in the dark.

“I don’t belong here,” I said softly. “Brianna, Roger . . . they don’t belong here. Jemmy shouldn’t be here; he should be watching cartoons on television, drawing pictures of cars and airplanes with crayons—not learning to shoot a gun as big as he is and cut the entrails from a deer.”

I lifted my face and closed my eyes, feeling the damp settle on my skin, heavy on my lashes.

“But we are here, all of us. And we’re here because I loved you, more than the life that was mine. Because I believed you loved me the same way.”

I took a deep breath, so that my voice wouldn’t tremble, opened my eyes and turned to him.

“Will you tell me that’s not true?”

“No,” he said after a moment, so softly I could barely hear him. His hand tightened harder on mine. “No, I willna tell ye that. Not ever, Claire.”

“Well, then,” I said, and felt the anxiety and fury and fear of the afternoon run out of me like water. I rested my head on his shoulder, and breathed the rain and sweat on his skin. He smelled acrid, pungent with the musk of fear and curdled anger.

It was entirely dark by now. I could hear sounds in the distance, Mrs. Bug calling to Arch from the stable where she’d been milking the goats, and his cracked old voice hallooing back. A bat flittered past, silent and hunting.

“Claire?” Jamie said softly.

“Hm?”

“I’ve got to tell ye something.”

I froze. After a moment, I carefully detached myself from him and sat upright.

“Don’t do that,” I said. “It makes me feel as though I’ve been punched in the stomach.”

“I’m sorry.”

I wrapped my arms around myself, trying to swallow the sudden feeling of nausea.

“You said you wouldn’t start off by saying you were sorry, because it felt as though there must be something to be sorry for.”

“I did,” he said, and sighed.

I felt the movement between us as the two stiff fingers of his right hand thrummed against his leg.

“There isna any good way,” he said finally, “of telling your wife ye’ve lain wi’ someone else. No matter what the circumstances. There’s just not.”

I felt suddenly dizzy, and short of breath. I closed my eyes momentarily. He didn’t mean Malva; he’d made that clear.

“Who?” I said as evenly as possible. “And when?”

He stirred uneasily.

“Oh. Well . . . when ye . . . when ye were . . . gone, to be sure.”

I managed to take a short breath.

“Who?” I said.

“Just the once,” he said. “I mean—I hadna the slightest intention of—”

“Who?”

He sighed, and rubbed hard at the back of his neck.

“Christ. The last thing I want is to upset ye, Sassenach, by sounding as though it—but I dinna want to malign the puir woman by makin’ it seem that she was—”

“WHO?” I roared, seizing him by the arm.

“Jesus!” he said, thoroughly startled. “Mary MacNab.”

“Who?” I said again, blankly this time.

“Mary MacNab,” he repeated, and sighed. “Can ye let go, Sassenach? I think ye’ve drawn blood.”

I had, my fingernails digging hard enough into his wrist as to pierce the skin. I flung his hand away, and folded my own into fists, wrapping my arms around my body by way of stopping myself from strangling him.

“Who. The. Hell. Is. Mary. MacNab?” I said, through my teeth. My face was hot, but cold sweat prickled along my jaw and rolled down my ribs.

“Ye ken her, Sassenach. She was wife to Rab—him that died when his house was burnt. They had the one bairn, Rabbie; he was stable-lad at Lallybroch when—”

“Mary MacNab. Her?” I could hear the astonishment in my own voice. I did recall Mary MacNab—barely. She’d come to be a maid at Lallybroch after the death of her nasty husband; a small, wiry woman, worn with work and hardship, who seldom spoke, but went about her business like a shadow, never more than half-noticed in the rowdy chaos of life at Lallybroch.

“I scarcely noticed her,” I said, trying—and failing—to remember whether she had been there on my last visit. “But I gather you did?”

“No,” he said, and sighed. “Not like ye mean, Sassenach.”

“Don’t call me that,” I said, my voice sounding low and venomous to my own ears.

He made a Scottish noise in his throat, of frustrated resignation, rubbing his wrist.

“Aye. Well, see, ’twas the night before I gave myself up to the English—”

“You never told me that!”

“Never told ye what?” He sounded confused.

“That you gave yourself up to the English. We thought you’d been captured.”

“I was,” he said briefly. “But by arrangement, for the price on my head.” He flipped a hand, dismissing the matter. “It wasna important.”

“They might have hanged you!” And a good thing, too, said the small, furiously hurt voice inside.

“No, they wouldn’t.” A faint tinge of amusement showed in his voice. “Ye’d told me so, Sass—mmphm. I didna really care, though, if they did.”

I had no idea what he meant by saying I’d told him so, but I certainly didn’t care at the moment.

“Forget that,” I said tersely. “I want to know—”

“About Mary. Aye, I ken.” He rubbed a hand slowly through his hair. “Aye, well. She came to me, the night before I—I went. I was in the cave, ken, near Lallybroch, and she brought me supper. And then she . . . stayed.”

I bit my tongue, not to interrupt. I could feel him gathering his thoughts, searching for words.

“I tried to send her away,” he said at last. “She . . . well, what she said to me . . .” He glanced at me; I saw the movement of his head. “She said she’d seen me with ye, Claire—and that she kent the look of a true love when she saw it, for all she’d not had one herself. And that it wasna in her mind to make me betray that. But she would give me . . . some small thing. That’s what she said to me,” he said, and his voice had grown husky, “‘some small thing, that maybe ye can use.’”

“It was—I mean, it wasna . . .” He stopped, and made that odd shrugging motion of his, as though his shirt were tight across his shoulders. He bowed his head for a moment on his knees, hands linked round them.

“She gave me tenderness,” he said finally, so softly that I barely heard him. “I—I hope I gave her the same.”

My throat and chest were too tight to speak, and tears prickled behind my eyes. I remembered, quite suddenly, what he had said to me the night I mended Tom Christie’s hand, about the Sacred Heart—“so wanting—and no one to touch him.” And he had lived in a cave for seven years, alone.

There was no more than a foot of space between us, but it seemed an unbridgeable gulf.

I reached across it and laid my hand on his, the tips of my fingers on his big, weathered knuckles. I took a breath, then two, trying to steady my voice, but it cracked and broke, nonetheless.

“You gave her . . . tenderness. I know you did.”

He turned to me, suddenly, and my face was pressed into his coat, the cloth of it damp and rough on my skin, my tears blooming in tiny warm patches that vanished at once into the chill of the fabric.

“Oh, Claire,” he whispered into my hair. I reached up, and could feel wetness on his cheeks. “She said—she wished to keep ye alive for me. And she meant it; she didna mean to take anything for herself.”

I cried then, holding nothing back. For empty years, yearning for the touch of a hand. Hollow years, lying beside a man I had betrayed, for whom I had no tenderness. For the terrors and doubts and griefs of the day. Cried for him and me and for Mary MacNab, who knew what loneliness was—and what love was, as well.

“I would have told ye, before,” he whispered, patting my back as though I were a small child. “But it was . . . it was the once.” He shrugged a little, helpless. “And I couldna think how. How to say it, that ye’d understand.”

I sobbed, gulped air, and finally sat up, wiping my face carelessly on a fold of my skirt.

“I understand,” I said. My voice was thick and clogged, but fairly steady now. “I do.”

And I did. Not only about Mary MacNab and what she had done—but why he’d told me now. There was no need; I would never have known. No need but the need for absolute honesty between us—and that I must know it was there.

I had believed him, about Malva. But now I had not only certainty of mind—but peace of heart.

We sat close together, the folds of my cloak and skirts flowing over his legs, his simple presence a comfort. Somewhere nearby, a very early cricket began to chirp.

“The rain’s past, then,” I said, hearing it. He nodded, with a small sound of assent.

“What shall we do?” I said at last. My voice sounded calm.

“Find out the truth—if I can.”

Neither of us mentioned the possibility that he might not. I shifted, gathering the folds of my cloak.

“Will we go home, then?”

It was too dark to see now, but I felt him nod as he got to his feet, putting down a hand to help me.

“Aye, we will.”

THE HOUSE WAS EMPTY when we returned, though Mrs. Bug had left a covered dish of shepherd’s pie on the table, the floor swept, and the fire neatly smoored. I took off my wet cloak and hung it on the peg, but then stood, unsure quite what to do next, as though I stood in a stranger’s house, in a country where I did not know the custom.

Jamie seemed to feel the same way—though after a moment, he stirred, fetched down the candlestick from the shelf over the hearth, and lit it with a spill from the fire. The wavering glow seemed only to emphasize the odd, echoing quality of the room, and he stood holding it for a minute, at a loss, before finally setting it down with a thump in the middle of the table.

“Are ye hungry, S . . . Sassenach?” He had begun to speak by habit, but then interrupted himself, looking up to be sure the name was once more allowed. I did my best to smile at him, though I could feel the corners of my mouth tremble.

“No. Are you?”

He shook his head, silent, and dropped his hand from the dish. Looking round for something else to do, he took up the poker and stirred the coals, breaking up the blackened embers and sending a swirl of sparks and soot up the chimney and out onto the hearth. It would ruin the fire, which would need to be rebuilt before bed, but I said nothing—he knew that.

“It feels like a death in the family,” I said at last. “As though something terrible has happened, and this is the shocked bit, before you begin to send round and tell all the neighbors.”

He gave a small, rueful laugh, and put the poker down.

“We’ll not need to. They’ll all ken well enough by daybreak what’s happened.”

Rousing at last from my immobility, I shook out my damp skirts and came to stand beside him by the fire. The heat of it seared at once through the wet cloth; it should have been comforting, but there was an icy weight in my abdomen that wouldn’t melt. I put a hand on his arm, needing the touch of him.

“No one will believe it,” I said. He put a hand over mine, and smiled a little, his eyes closed, but shook his head.

“They’ll all believe it, Claire,” he said softly. “I’m sorry.”

81

BENEFIT OF THE DOUBT

IT ISN’T FREAKING TRUE!”

“No, of course not.” Roger watched his wife warily; she was exhibiting the general symptoms of a large explosive device with an unstable timing mechanism, and he had the distinct feeling that it was dangerous to be in her vicinity.

“That little bitch! I want to just grab her and choke the truth out of her!” Her hand closed convulsively on the neck of the syrup bottle, and he reached to take it from her before she should break it.

“I understand the impulse,” he said, “but on the whole—better not.”

She glared at him, but relinquished the bottle.

“Can’t you do something?” she said.

He’d been asking himself that since he’d heard the news of Malva’s accusation.

“I don’t know,” he said. “But I thought I’d go and talk to the Christies, at least. And if I can get Malva alone, I will.” Thinking of his last tête-à-tête with Malva Christie, though, he had an uneasy feeling that she wouldn’t be easily shaken from her story.

Brianna sat down, scowling at her plate of buckwheat cakes, and began slathering them with butter. Her fury was beginning to give way to rational thought; he could see ideas darting behind her eyes.

“If you can get her to admit that it’s not true,” she said slowly, “that’s good. If not, though—the next best thing is to find out who’s been with her. If some guy will admit in public that he could be the father—that would cast a lot of doubt on her story, at least.”

“True.” Roger poured syrup sparingly over his own cakes, even in the midst of uncertainty and anxiety enjoying the thick dark smell of it and the anticipation of rare sweetness. “Though there would still be those who’d be convinced Jamie’s guilty. Here.”

“I saw her kissing Obadiah Henderson in the woods,” Bree said, accepting the bottle. “Late last fall.” She shuddered fastidiously. “If it was him, no wonder she doesn’t want to say.”

Roger eyed her curiously. He knew Obadiah, who was large and uncouth, but not at all bad looking and not stupid. Some women would consider him a decent match; he had fifteen acres, which he farmed competently, and was a good hunter. He’d never seen Bree so much as speak to the man, though.

“Can you think of anybody else?” she asked, still frowning.

“Well . . . Bobby Higgins,” he replied, still wary. “The Beardsley twins used to eye her now and then, but of course . . .” He had a nasty feeling that this line of inquiry was going to culminate in her adjuring him to go and ask awkward questions of any putative fathers—a process that struck him as likely being both pointless and dangerous.

“Why?” she demanded, cutting viciously into her stack of pancakes. “Why would she do it? Mama’s always been so kind to her!”

“One of two reasons,” Roger replied, and paused for a moment, closing his eyes, the better to savor the decadence of melted butter and velvet-smooth maple syrup on fresh, hot buckwheat. He swallowed, and reluctantly opened his eyes.

“Either the real father is someone she doesn’t want to marry—for whatever reason—or she’s decided to try to get hold of your father’s money or property, by getting him to settle a sum on her or, failing that, on the child.”

“Or both. I mean, she doesn’t want to marry whoever it is, and wants Da’s money—not that he has any.”

“Or both,” he agreed.

They ate in silence for a few minutes, forks scraping on the wooden plates, each absorbed in thought. Jem had spent the night at the Big House; in the wake of Lizzie’s marriage, Roger had suggested that Amy McCallum take over Lizzie’s work as housemaid, and since she and Aidan had moved in, Jem spent even more time over there, finding solace for the loss of Germain in Aidan’s companionship.

“It isn’t true,” she repeated stubbornly. “Da simply wouldn’t . . .” But he saw the faint doubt at the back of her eyes—and a slight glaze of panic at the thought.

“No, he wouldn’t,” he said firmly. “Brianna—you can’t possibly think there’s any truth to it?”

“No, of course not!” But she spoke too loudly, too definitely. He laid down his fork and looked at her levelly.

“What’s the matter? Do ye know something?”

“Nothing.” She chased the last bite of pancake round her plate, speared and ate it.

He made a skeptical sound, and she frowned at the sticky puddle left on her plate. She always poured too much honey or syrup; he, more sparing, always ended with a clean plate.

“I don’t,” she said. She bit her lower lip, though, and put the tip of her finger into the puddle of syrup. “It’s only . . .”

“What?”

“Not Da,” she said slowly. She put the tip of her finger in her mouth and sucked the syrup off. “And I don’t know for sure about Daddy. It’s only—looking back at things I didn’t understand at the time—now I see—” She stopped abruptly, and closed her eyes, then opened them, fixing him directly.

“I was looking through his wallet one day. Not snooping, just having fun, taking all the cards and things out and putting them back. There was a note tucked away, between the dollar bills. It was asking him to meet somebody for lunch—”

“Innocent enough.”

“It started out with Darling—, and it wasn’t my mother’s handwriting,” she said tersely.

“Ah,” he said, and after a moment, “how old were you?”

“Eleven.” She drew small patterns on the plate with the tip of her finger. “I just put the note back and kind of blotted it out of my mind. I didn’t want to think about it—and I don’t think I ever did, from that day to this. There were a few other things, things I saw and didn’t understand—it was mostly the way things were between them, my parents . . . Every now and then, something would happen, and I never knew what, but I always knew something was really wrong.”

She trailed off, sighed deeply, and wiped her finger on her napkin.

“Bree,” he said gently. “Jamie’s an honorable man, and he loves your mother deeply.”

“Well, see, that’s the thing,” she said softly. “I would have sworn Daddy was, too. And did.”

IT WASN’T IMPOSSIBLE. The thought kept returning, to niggle Roger uncomfortably, like a pebble in his shoe. Jamie Fraser was an honorable man, he was deeply uxorious—and he had been in the depths of despair and exhaustion during Claire’s illness. Roger had feared for him nearly as much as for Claire; he’d gone hollow-eyed and grim-jawed through the hot, endless days of reeking death, not eating, not sleeping, held together by nothing more than will.

Roger had tried to speak to him then, of God and eternity, reconcile him with what seemed the inevitable, only to be repulsed with a hot-eyed fury at the mere idea that God might think to take his wife—this followed by complete despair as Claire lapsed into a stupor near death. It wasn’t impossible that the offer of a moment’s physical comfort, made in that void of desolation, had gone further than either party intended.

But it was early May now, and Malva Christie was six months gone with child. Which meant that she’d got that way in November. The crisis of Claire’s illness had been in late September; he remembered vividly the smell of burnt-over fields in the room when she’d wakened from what looked like certain death, her eyes huge and lambent, startlingly beautiful in a face like an androgynous angel’s.

Right, then, it frigging was impossible. No man was perfect, and any man might yield in extremis—once. But not repeatedly. And not Jamie Fraser. Malva Christie was a liar.

Feeling more settled in mind, Roger made his way down the creekside toward the Christies’ cabin.

Can’t you do something? Brianna had asked him, anguished. Damn little, he thought, but he had to try. It was Friday; he could—and would—preach an ear-blistering sermon on the evils of gossip, come Sunday. Knowing what he did of human nature, though, any benefit derived from that was likely to be short-lived.

Beyond that—well, Lodge meeting was Wednesday night. It had been going really well, and he hated to jeopardize the fragile amity of the newborn Lodge by risking unpleasantness at a meeting . . . but if there was a chance of it helping . . . would it be useful to encourage both Jamie and the two Christie men to attend? It would get the matter out in the open, and no matter how bad, open public knowledge was always better than the festering weed of whispered scandal. He thought Tom Christie would observe the proprieties and be civil, notwithstanding the delicacy of the situation—but he wasn’t all that sure of Allan. The son shared his father’s features and his sense of self-righteousness, but lacked Tom’s iron will and self-control.

But now he was at the cabin, which seemed deserted. He heard the sound of an ax, though, the slow klop! of kindling being split, and went round to the back.

It was Malva, who turned at his greeting, her face wary. There were lavender smudges beneath her eyes, he saw, and the bloom of her skin was clouded. Guilty conscience, he hoped, as he greeted her cordially.

“If ye’ve come to try to get me to take it back, I won’t,” she said flatly, ignoring his greeting.

“I came to ask if ye wanted someone to talk to,” he said. That surprised her; she set down the ax, and wiped her face with her apron.

“To talk to?” she said slowly, eyeing him. “What about?”

He shrugged and offered her a very slight smile.

“Anything ye like.” He let his accent relax, broadening toward her own Edinburgh tinge. “I doubt ye’ve been able to talk to anyone of late, save your Da and brother—and they might not be able to listen just the noo.”

A matching small smile flitted across her features, and disappeared.

“No, they don’t listen,” she said. “But it’s all right; I’ve naught much to say, ken? I’m a hoor; what else is there?”

“I dinna think ye’re a hoor,” Roger said quietly.

“Oh, ye don’t?” She rocked back a little on her heels, surveying him mockingly. “What else would ye call a woman that spreads her legs for a marrit man? Adulteress, of course—but hoor, as well, or so I’m told.”

He thought she meant to shock him with deliberate coarseness. She did, rather, but he kept it to himself.

“Mistaken, maybe. Jesus didna speak harshly to the woman who was a harlot; it’s no my business to be doing it to someone who isn’t.”

“And if ye’ve come to quote the Bible to me, save your breath to cool your parritch with,” she said, a look of distaste pulling down the delicate corners of her mouth. “I’ve heard a deal more of it than I care to.”

That, he reflected, was probably true. Tom Christie was the sort who knew a verse—or ten—for every occasion, and if he didn’t beat his daughter physically, had almost certainly been doing it verbally.

Not sure what to say next, he held out his hand.

“If ye’ll give me the hatchet, I’ll do the rest.”

One eyebrow raised, she put it into his hand and stepped back. He put up a chunk of kindling and split it clean in two, stooped for another. She watched for a moment, then sat down, slowly, on a smaller stump.

The mountain spring was still cool, touched with the last winter breath of the high snows, but the work warmed him. He didn’t by any means forget she was there, but he kept his eyes on the wood, the bright grain of the fresh-split stick, the tug of it as he pulled the ax blade free, and found his thoughts move back to his conversation with Bree.

So Frank Randall had been—perhaps—unfaithful to his wife, on occasion. In all justice, Roger wasn’t sure he could be blamed, knowing the circumstances of the case. Claire had disappeared completely, without trace, leaving Frank to hunt desperately, to mourn, and then, at last, to begin to put the pieces of his life back together and move on. Whereupon the missing wife pops back up, distraught, mistreated—and pregnant by another man.

Whereupon Frank Randall, whether from a sense of honor, of love, or simply of—what? curiosity?—had taken her back. He recalled Claire’s telling them the story, and it was clear that she hadn’t particularly wanted to be taken back. It must have been damned clear to Frank Randall, too.

Little wonder, then, if outrage and rejection had led him occasionally—and little wonder, too, that the echoes of the hidden conflicts between her parents had reached Brianna, like seismic disturbances that travel through miles of earth and stone, jolts from an upwelling of magma, miles deep beneath the crust.

And little wonder, he realized with a sense of revelation, that she’d been so upset by his friendship with Amy McCallum.

He realized, quite suddenly, that Malva Christie was crying. Silently, without covering her face. Tears ran down her cheeks and her shoulders quivered, but her lower lip was caught hard between her teeth; she made no sound.

He cast down the ax and went to her. Put an arm gently round her shoulders, and cradled her capped head, patting her.

“Hey,” he said softly. “Don’t worry, aye? It’s going to be all right.”

She shook her head, and the tears washed down her face.

“Can’t be,” she whispered. “Can’t be.”

Beneath his pity for her, Roger was aware of a sense of growing hope. Whatever reluctance he might have to exploit her desperation was well overcome by a determination to get to the bottom of her trouble. Mostly for the sake of Jamie and his family—but for her own, as well.

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