A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 76

   

He mustn’t push too hard, though, mustn’t rush. She had to trust him.

So he patted her, rubbed her back as he did for Jem when he woke with nightmare, said small soothing things, all meaningless, and felt her begin to yield. Yield, but in a strangely physical fashion, as though her flesh were somehow opening, blossoming slowly under his touch.

Strange, and at the same time, oddly familiar. He’d felt it now and then with Bree, when he’d turned to her in the dark, when she hadn’t time to think but responded to him with her body alone. The physical recollection jarred him, and he drew back a little. He meant to say something to Malva, but the sound of a footfall interrupted him, and he looked up to see Allan Christie coming toward him out of the trees, fast, with a face like black thunder.

“Get away from her!”

He straightened, heart pounding as he realized quite suddenly what this might look like.

“What d’ye mean, slinkin’ round like a rat after a rind o’ cheese?” Allan cried. “D’ye think since she’s shamed, she’s meat for any whoreson bastard that cares to take her?”

“I came to offer counsel,” Roger said as coolly as he could manage. “And comfort, if I might.”

“Oh, aye.” Allan Christie’s face was flushed, the tufts of his hair standing on end like the bristles on a hog about to charge. “Comfort me with apples and stay me with raisins, is it? Ye can stick your comfort straight up your arse, MacKenzie, and your goddamned stiff prick, too!”

Allan’s hands were clenched at his sides, trembling with rage.

“Ye’re no better than your wicked good-father—or perhaps”—he rounded suddenly on Malva, who had stopped crying, but was sitting white-faced and frozen on her stump—“perhaps it was him, too? Is that it, ye wee bitch, did ye take them both? Answer me!” His hand shot out to slap her, and Roger caught his wrist by reflex.

Roger was so angry that he could barely speak. Christie was strong, but Roger was bigger; he would have broken the young man’s wrist, if he could. As it was, he dug his fingers hard into the space between the bones, and was gratified to see Christie’s eyes pop and water from the pain of it.

“Ye’ll not speak to your sister that way,” he said, not loudly, but very clearly. “Nor to me.” He shifted his grip suddenly and bent Christie’s wrist sharply backward. “D’ye hear me?”

Allan’s face went white and the breath hissed out of him. He didn’t answer, but managed to nod. Roger released his hold, almost flinging the younger man’s wrist away, with a sudden feeling of revulsion.

“I do not wish to hear that ye’ve abused your sister in any way,” he said, as evenly as he could. “If I do—ye’ll regret it. Good day, Mr. Christie. Miss Christie,” he added, with a brief bow to Malva. She didn’t respond, only stared at him from eyes gray as storm clouds, huge with shock. The memory of them followed him as he strode from the clearing and plunged into the darkness of the wood, wondering whether he’d made things better, or much, much worse.

THE NEXT MEETING of the Fraser’s Ridge Lodge was on Wednesday. Brianna went as usual to the Big House, taking Jemmy and her workbasket, and was surprised to find Bobby Higgins seated at the table, finishing his supper.

“Miss Brianna!” He half-rose at sight of her, beaming, but she waved him back to his seat, and slid into the bench opposite.

“Bobby! How nice to see you again! We thought—well, we thought you wouldn’t come again.”

He nodded, looking rueful.

“Aye, happen I might not, at least not for a bit. But his Lordship had some things, things come in from England, and he says to me as I shall bring ’em.” He ran a piece of bread carefully round the inside of his bowl, sopping up the last of Mrs. Bug’s chicken gravy.

“And then . . . well, I did wish to come on my own account. For to see Miss Christie, aye?”

“Oh.” She glanced up and caught Mrs. Bug’s eye. The older woman rolled her eyes, helpless, and shook her head. “Um. Yes, Malva. Er . . . is my mother upstairs, Mrs. Bug?”

“Nay, a nighean. She was called to Mr. MacNeill; he’s bad wi’ the pleurisy.” Barely pausing for breath, she whipped off her apron and hung it on its hook, reaching for her cloak with the other hand. “I’ll be along, then, a leannan; Arch will be wanting his supper. If there’s aught wanting, Amy’s about.” And with the briefest of farewells, she vanished, leaving Bobby staring after her in puzzlement at this uncharacteristic behavior.

“Is something amiss?” he asked, turning back to Brianna with a small frown.

“Ahh . . . well.” With a few uncharitable thoughts toward Mrs. Bug, Brianna girded up her loins and told him, grimacing inwardly at the sight of his sweet young face as it turned white and rigid in the firelight.

She couldn’t bring herself to mention Malva’s accusation, only told him that the girl was with child. He’d hear about Jamie, soon enough, but please God, not from her.

“I see, miss. Aye . . . I see.” He sat for a moment, staring at the bit of bread in his hand. Then he dropped it into his bowl, rose suddenly, and rushed outside; she heard him retching into the blackberry bushes outside the back door. He didn’t come back.

It was a long evening. Her mother was plainly spending the night with Mr. MacNeill and his pleurisy. Amy McCallum came down for a little while, and they made awkward conversation over their sewing, but then the maid escaped upstairs. Aidan and Jemmy, allowed to stay up late and play, wore themselves out and fell asleep on the settle.

She fidgeted, abandoned her sewing, and paced up and down, waiting for Lodge to finish. She wanted her own bed, her own house; her parents’ kitchen, normally so welcoming, seemed strange and uncomfortable, and she a stranger in it.

At long, long last, she heard footsteps and the creak of the door, and Roger came in, looking bothered.

“There you are,” she said with relief. “How was Lodge? Did the Christies come?”

He shook his head.

“No. It . . . went all right, I suppose. A bit of awkwardness, of course, but your father carried it off as well as anyone might, in the circumstances.”

She grimaced, imagining it.

“Where is he?”

“He said he thought he’d go and walk by himself for a bit—maybe do a little night fishing.” Roger put his arms round her and hugged her close, sighing. “Did ye hear the ruckus?”

“No! What happened?”

“Well, we’d just had a wee blether on the universal nature of brotherly love, when a clishmaclaver broke out, over by your kiln. Well, so, everyone streamed out to see what was to do, and here’s your cousin Ian and wee Bobby Higgins, rolling in the dirt and trying to kill each other.”

“Oh, dear.” She felt a spasm of guilt. Probably someone had told Bobby everything, and he had gone in search of Jamie, meeting Ian instead, and thrown Malva’s accusations of Jamie at him. If she’d told him herself . . .

“What happened?”

“Well, Ian’s bloody dog took a hand, for the one thing—or a paw. Your father barely stopped him tearing out Bobby’s throat, but it did stop the fight. We dragged them apart, then, and Ian tore free and loped off into the woods, with the dog beside him. Bobby’s . . . well, I cleaned him up a bit, then gave him Jemmy’s trundle for the night,” he said apologetically. “He said he couldna stay up here—” He looked round at the shadowed kitchen; she’d already smoored the fire and carried the little boys up to bed; the room was empty, lit only by a faint hearth glow.

“I’m sorry. Will ye sleep here, then?”

She shook her head emphatically.

“Bobby or no Bobby, I want to go home.”

“Aye, all right. You go on, then; I’ll fetch Amy down to bar the door.”

“No, that’s okay,” she said quickly. “I’ll get her.” And before he could protest, she was down the hall and up the stair, the empty house strange and silent below.

82

NOT THE END OF

THE WORLD

THERE IS A GREAT DEAL of satisfaction in wresting weeds out of the earth. Backbreaking and endless as the chore may be, there is a tiny but unassailable sense of triumph in it, feeling the soil give suddenly, yielding the stubborn root, and the foe lying defeated in your hand.

It had rained recently and the earth was soft. I ripped and tore with ferocious concentration; dandelions, fireweed, rhododendron sprouts, bunchgrass, muhly, smartweed, and the creeping mallow known locally as “cheese.” Paused for an instant, narrow-eyed at a bull thistle, and prised it from the ground with a vicious stab of my pruning knife.

The grapevines that ran up the palisades had just begun their spring rush, and sprouts and ruffles of a delicate green tinged with rust cascaded from the woody stems, eager tendrils curling like my own new-grown hair—God damn her, she’d taken my hair on purpose to disfigure me! The shade they cast provided refuge for immense bushy growths of the pernicious thing I called “jewelweed,” not knowing its real name, for the tiny white flowers that winked like diamond clusters in the feathery green fronds. It was likely a fennel of some sort, but formed neither a useful bulb nor edible seeds; pretty, but useless—and thus the sort of thing that spreads like wildfire.

There was a small swishing sound, and a ball of rags came to rest by my foot. This was followed immediately by the rush of a much larger body, and Rollo swept past me, snatching the ball adroitly and galloping away, the wind of his passage stirring my skirts. Startled, I looked up, to see him bounding toward Ian, who’d come soft-footed into the garden.

He made a small gesture of apology, but I sat back on my heels and smiled at him, making an effort to quell the vicious sentiments surging to and fro in my bosom.

Evidently, the quelling wasn’t all that successful, for I saw him frown a little, and hesitate, looking at my face.

“Did you want something, Ian?” I said shortly, dropping the facade of welcome. “If that hound of yours knocks over one of my hives, I’ll make a rug of him.”

“Rollo!” Ian snapped his fingers at the dog, who leapt gracefully over the row of bee gums and basket hives that sat at the far end of the garden, trotted up to his master, dropped the ball at his feet, and stood genially panting, yellow wolf-eyes fixed with apparent interest on me.

Ian scooped up the ball, and turning, flung it out through the open gate, Rollo after it like the tail of a comet.

“I did want to ask ye something, Auntie,” he said, turning back to me. “It would wait, though.”

“No, that’s all right. Now’s as good a time as any.” Getting awkwardly to my feet, I waved him to the little bench Jamie had made for me in a shady nook beneath a flowering dogwood that overhung the corner of the garden.

“So?” I settled myself beside him, brushing crumbs of dirt from the bottom of my skirt.

“Mmphm. Well . . .” He stared at his hands, linked over his knee, big-knuckled and bony. “I . . . ah . . .”

“You haven’t been exposed to syphilis again, have you?” I asked, with a vivid memory of my last interview with an awkward young man in this garden. “Because if you have, Ian, I swear I will use Dr. Fentiman’s syringe on you and I won’t be gentle with it. You—”

“No, no!” he said hastily. “No, of course not, Auntie. It’s about—about Malva Christie.” He tensed as he said it, in case I should lunge for the pruning knife, but I merely drew a deep breath and let it out again, slowly.

“What about her?” I said, my voice deliberately even.

“Well . . . no really her, exactly. More what she said—about Uncle Jamie.” He stopped, swallowing, and I drew another slow breath. Disturbed as I was by the situation myself, I’d scarcely thought about its impact on anyone else. But Ian had idolized Jamie from the time he was a tiny boy; I could well imagine that the widespread suggestions that Jamie might have feet of clay were deeply upsetting to him.

“Ian, you mustn’t worry yourself.” I put a consoling hand—dirt-stained as it was—on his arm. “It will . . . work itself out, somehow. Such things always do.” They did—generally with the maximum of uproar and catastrophe. And if Malva’s child should by some horrid cosmic joke be born with red hair . . . I closed my eyes for a moment, feeling a wave of dizziness.

“Aye, I suppose they will,” Ian said, sounding uncertain in the extreme. “It’s only—what they’re sayin’, about Uncle Jamie. Even his own Ardsmuir men, folk that should know better! That he must have—well, I’ll no repeat any of it, Auntie—but . . . I canna bear to hear it!”

His long, homely face was twisted with unhappiness, and it suddenly occurred to me that he might be having his own doubts about the matter.

“Ian,” I said, with as much firmness as I could muster, “Malva’s child could not possibly be Jamie’s. You do believe that, don’t you?”

He nodded, very slowly, but wouldn’t meet my eyes.

“I do,” he said softly, and then swallowed hard. “But, Auntie . . . it could be mine.”

A bee had lighted on my arm. I stared at it, seeing the veins in its glassy wings, the dust of yellow pollen that clung to the minuscule hairs of its legs and abdomen, the gentle pulsing of its body as it breathed.

“Oh, Ian,” I said as softly as he’d spoken himself. “Oh, Ian.”

He was strung tight as a marionette, but when I spoke, a little of the tension left the arm under my hand, and I saw that he had closed his eyes.

“I’m sorry, Auntie,” he whispered.

Wordless, I patted his arm. The bee flew off, and I wished passionately that I could exchange places with it. It would be so wonderful, simply to be about the business of gathering, single-minded in the sun.

Another bee lighted on Ian’s collar, and he brushed it absently away.

“Well, so,” he said, taking a deep breath and turning his head to look at me. “What must I do, Auntie?”

His eyes were dark with misery and worry—and something very like fear, I thought.

“Do?” I said, sounding as blank as I felt. “Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ, Ian.”

I hadn’t meant to make him smile, and he didn’t, but he did seem to relax very slightly.

“Aye, I’ve done it already,” he said, very rueful. “But—it’s done, Auntie. How can I mend it?”

I rubbed my brow, trying to think. Rollo had brought back his ball, but seeing that Ian was in no mood to play, dropped it by his feet and leaned against his leg, panting.

“Malva,” I said finally. “Did she tell you? Before, I mean.”

“Ye think I scorned her, and that’s what made her accuse Uncle Jamie?” He gave me a wry look, absently scratching Rollo’s ruff. “Well, I wouldna blame ye if ye did, Auntie, but no. She said not a word to me about the matter. If she had, I should ha’ marrit her at once.”

The hurdle of confession overcome, he was talking more easily now.

“You didn’t think of marrying her first?” I said, with perhaps a slight tinge of acerbity.

“Ah . . . no,” he said, very sheepish. “It wasna precisely a matter of—well, I wasna thinking at all, Auntie. I was drunk. The first time, anyway,” he added as an afterthought.

“The first—? How many— No, don’t tell me. I don’t want to know the gory details.” I shut him up with a brusque gesture, and sat up straight, struck by a thought. “Bobby Higgins. Was that—”

He nodded, lowering his lashes so I couldn’t see his eyes. The blood had come up under his tan.

“Aye. That was why—I mean, I didna really wish to marry her, to begin with, but still, I would have asked, after we . . . but I put it off a bit, and—” He scrubbed a hand across his face, helpless. “Well, I didna want her to wife, but I couldna keep from wanting her, nonetheless, and I ken well enough how awful it must seem—but I’ve got to tell the truth, Auntie, and that’s it.” He took a gulp of air, and continued.

“I’d—wait for her. In the woods, when she came to gather. She’d not speak when she saw me, only smile, and raise her skirts a bit, then turn quick and run and . . . God, I should be after her like a dog after a bitch in heat,” he said bitterly. “But then one day I came late, and she wasna there where we usually met. But I heard her laughing, far off, and when I went to see . . .”

He twisted his hands hard enough to dislocate a finger, grimacing, and Rollo whined softly.

“Let us just say that yon bairn might well be Bobby Higgins’s, too,” he said, biting off the words.

I felt suddenly exhausted, as I had when recovering from my illness, as though it was too much effort even to breathe. I leaned back against the palisades, feeling the cool papery rustle of grape leaves against my neck, fanning softly over my heated cheeks.

Ian bent forward, head in his hands, the dappled green shadows playing over him.

“What shall I do?” he asked at last, voice muffled. He sounded as tired as I felt. “I dinna mind saying that I—that the child might be mine. But would it help, d’ye think?”

“No,” I said bleakly. “It wouldn’t.” Public opinion would not be changed in the slightest; everyone would simply assume that Ian was lying for his uncle’s sake. Even if he were to marry the girl, it wouldn’t—

A thought struck me and I pulled myself upright again.

“You said you didn’t want to marry her, even before you knew about Bobby. Why?” I asked curiously.

He lifted his head from his hands with a helpless gesture.

“I dinna ken how to say it. She was—well, she was bonnie enough, aye, and a proper spirit to her, as well. But she . . . I dinna ken, Auntie. It was only that I always had the feeling, lying wi’ her—that I dare not fall asleep.”

I stared at him.

“Well, that would be off-putting, I imagine.”

He had dismissed that, though, and was frowning, digging the heel of his moccasin into the soil.

“There’s no means of telling which of two men has fathered a bairn, is there?” he asked abruptly. “Only—if it’s mine, I should want it. I would wed her for the child’s sake, no matter what else. If it’s mine.”

Bree had told me the bare bones of his history; I knew about his Mohawk wife, Emily, and the death of his daughter, and I felt the small presence of my own first child, Faith, stillborn but always with me.

“Oh, Ian,” I said softly, and touched his hair. “You might be able to tell, by the way the child looked—but probably not, or not right away.”

He nodded, and sighed. After a moment, he said, “If I say it’s mine, and I wed her—folk might still talk, but after a time . . .” His voice died away. True, talk might eventually die down. But there would still be those who thought Jamie responsible, others who would call Malva a whore, a liar, or both—which she bloody well was, I reminded myself, but not a nice thing to hear about one’s wife. And what might Ian’s life be like, married under such circumstances, to a woman he could not trust and—I thought—did not especially like?

“Well,” I said, rising to my feet and stretching, “don’t do anything drastic just yet awhile. Let me talk with Jamie; you don’t mind if I tell him?”

“I wish ye would, Auntie. I dinna think I could face him, myself.” He still sat on the bench, bony shoulders slumped. Rollo lay on the ground at his feet, the big wolf head resting on Ian’s moccasined foot. Moved with pity, I put my arms round Ian, and he leaned his head against me, simply, like a child.

“It isn’t the end of the world,” I said.

The sun was touching the edge of the mountain, and the sky burned red and gold, the light of it falling in blazing bars through the palisades.

“No,” he said, but there was no conviction in his voice.

83

DECLARATIONS

Charlotte, Mecklenberg County

May 20, 1775

THE ONE THING ROGER HAD NOT envisioned about the making of history was the sheer amount of alcohol involved. He should have, he thought; if there was anything a career in academia had taught him, it was that almost all worthwhile business was conducted in the pub.

The public houses, taverns, ordinaries, and pothouses in Charlotte were doing a roaring business, as delegates, spectators, and hangers-on seethed through them, men of Loyalist sentiments collecting in the King’s Arms, those of rabidly opposing views in the Blue Boar, with shifting currents of the unallied and undecided eddying to and fro, purling through the Goose and Oyster, Thomas’s ordinary, the Groats, Simon’s, Buchanan’s, Mueller’s, and two or three nameless places that barely qualified as shebeens.

Jamie visited all of them. And drank in all of them, sharing beer, ale, rum punch, shandy, cordial, porter, stout, cider, brandywine, persimmon beer, rhubarb wine, blackberry wine, cherry bounce, perry, merry brew, and scrumpy. Not all of them were alcoholic, but the great majority were.

Roger confined himself largely to beer, and found himself glad of his restraint, when he happened to meet with Davy Caldwell in the street, turning from a fruiterer’s stall with a handful of early apricots.

“Mr. MacKenzie!” Caldwell cried, his face lighting with welcome. “I had nay thought to meet you here, but what blessing that I have!”

“Blessing indeed,” Roger said, shaking the minister’s hand with cordial fervor. Caldwell had married him and Brianna, and had examined him at the Presbyterian Academy regarding his own calling, some months before. “How d’ye do, Mr. Caldwell?”

“Och, for myself, well enough—but my heart misgives me for the fate of my poor brethren!” Caldwell shook his head in dismay, gesturing at a group of men crowding into Simon’s ordinary, laughing and talking. “What is to come of this, I ask ye, Mr. MacKenzie—what’s to come?”

Roger was, for an unbalanced instant, tempted to tell him what was to come of it, exactly. As it was, though, he gestured to Jamie—who had been stopped by an acquaintance in the street—to go along without him, and turned away to walk a bit with Caldwell.

“Have ye come for the conference, then, Mr. Caldwell?” he asked.

“I have that, Mr. MacKenzie, I have that. Little hope have I that my words will make the slightest difference, but it is my duty to speak as I find, and so I shall.”

What Davy Caldwell found was a shocking condition of human slothfulness, for which he blamed the entire current situation, convinced that unreflective apathy and “a stupid concern with personal comfort” on the part of the colonists both tempted and provoked the exercise of tyrannical powers on the part of Crown and Parliament.

“It’s a point, sure,” Roger said, aware that Caldwell’s impassioned gestures were attracting a certain amount of notice, even amongst the crowds in the street, most of them reasonably argumentative themselves.

“A point!” Caldwell cried. “Aye, it is, and the point entirely. The ignorance, disregard of moral obligation, and the supreme love of ease of the groveling sluggard corresponds exactly—exactly!—with a tyrant’s appetite and cynicism.”

He glowered at one gentleman who had subsided against the side of a house, taking a brief respite from the noonday heat with his hat over his face.

“The spirit of God must redeem the slothful, fill the human frame with activity, poise, and libertarian consciousness!”

Roger wondered, rather, whether Caldwell would view the escalating war as the result of God’s intervention—but upon reflection, thought that he likely would. Caldwell was a thinker, but a staunch Presbyterian, and thus a believer in predestination.

“The slothful encourage and facilitate oppression,” Caldwell explained, with a scornful gesture toward a family of tinkers enjoying an alfresco luncheon in the yard of a house. “Their own shame and sinking spirits, their own pitiful compliance and submission—these become self-made chains of slavery!”

“Oh, aye,” Roger said, and coughed. Caldwell was a famous preacher, and rather inclined to want to keep in practice. “Will ye take a whet, Mr. Caldwell?” It was a warm day, and Caldwell’s rather round, cherubic face was becoming very red.

They went into Thomas’s ordinary, a fairly respectable house, and sat down with tankards of the house beer—for Caldwell, like most, did not regard beer as being in any way “drink,” like rum or whisky. What else, after all, would one drink? Milk?

Out of the sun, and with a cooling draught to hand, Davy Caldwell became less heated in his expressions, as well as his countenance.

“Praise God for the fortune of meeting ye here, Mr. MacKenzie,” he said, breathing deep after lowering his tankard. “I had sent a letter, but doubtless ye will have left home before it could come. I wished to inform ye of the gladsome news—there is to be a Presbytery.”

Roger felt a sudden leap of the heart.

“When? And where?”

“Edenton, early next month. The Reverend Doctor McCorkle is coming from Philadelphia. He’ll remain for a time, before departing on his further journey—he is going to the Indies, to encourage the efforts of the church there. I am, of course, presuming to know your mind—I apologize for the forwardness of my address, Mr. MacKenzie—but is it still your desire to seek ordination?”

“With all my heart.”

Caldwell beamed, and grasped him strongly by the hand.

“Give ye joy of it, dear man—great joy.”

He then plunged into a close description of McCorkle, whom he had met in Scotland, and speculations regarding the state of religion in the colony—he spoke of Methodism with some respect, but considered the New Light Baptists “somewhat unregulated” in their effusions of worship, though doubtless well-meaning—and surely sincere belief was an improvement over unbelief, whatever the form it might take. In due course, though, he came back round to their present circumstances.

“Ye’ve come with your father-in-law, have ye?” he asked. “I thought I saw him, in the road.”

“I have, and ye did,” Roger assured him, fumbling in his pocket for a coin. The pocket itself was full of coiled horsehair; with his academic experience as guide, he had made provision against possible boredom by bringing the makings of a new fishing line.

“Ah.” Caldwell looked at him keenly. “I’ve heard things of late—is it true, he’s turned Whig?”

“He is a firm friend to liberty,” Roger said, cautious, and took a breath. “As am I.” He’d not had occasion to say it out loud before; it gave him a small, breathless feeling, just under the breastbone.

“Aha, aha, very good! I had heard of it, as I say—and yet there are a great many who say otherwise: that he is a Tory, a Loyalist like his relations, and that this protestation of support for the independency movement is but a ruse.” It wasn’t phrased as a question, but Caldwell’s bushy eyebrow, cocked like a swell’s hat, made it clear that it was.

“Jamie Fraser is an honest man,” Roger said, and drained his tankard. “And an honorable one,” he added, setting it down. “And speaking of the same, I think I must go and find him.”

Caldwell glanced around; there was an air of restlessness around them, of men calling their accounts and settling up. The official meeting of the convention was to begin at two o’clock, at MacIntyre’s farmhouse. It was past noon now, delegates, speakers, and spectators would be slowly gathering, girding themselves for an afternoon of conflict and decision. The breathless feeling came back.

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