A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 77

   

“Aye, then. Give him my regards, if ye will—though perhaps I may see him myself. And may the Holy Spirit penetrate the encrustations of habit and lethargy, and convert the souls and rouse the consciences of those who gather here today!”

“Amen,” said Roger, smiling in spite of the glances from the men—and not a few women—around them.

He found Jamie in the Blue Boar, in the company of a number of men in whom the Holy Spirit had already been hard at work on the encrustations, judging from the volume. The chatter near the door died away, though, as he made his way through the room—not in cause of his own presence, but because there was something more interesting going on near the center.

To wit: Jamie Fraser and Neil Forbes, both red with heat, passion, and a gallon or two of mixed spirits, head to head over a table, and hissing like snakes in the Gaelic.

Only a few of the spectators were Gaelic speakers; these were hastily translating the high points of the dialogue for the rest of the crowd.

Gaelic insult was an art, and one at which his father-in-law excelled, though Roger was obliged to admit that the lawyer was no slouch at it, himself. The translations rendered by the onlookers fell far short of the original; nonetheless, the taproom was rapt, with occasional admiring whistles or whoops from the spectators, or laughter as a particularly pungent point was made.

Having missed the beginning, Roger had no idea how the conflict had begun, but so far into it as they were, the exchange was focused on cowardice and arrogance, Jamie’s remarks aimed at Forbes’s leading the attack on Fogarty Simms as a low-minded and cowardly attempt to make himself look the big man at the price of a defenseless man’s life, Forbes—shifting into English here, as he realized that they had become the cynosure of the room—taking the view that Jamie’s presence here was an unwarrantable affront to those who truly held the ideals of liberty and justice, as everyone knew he was in truth the King’s man, but he, the puffed-up c*ck o’ the walk, thought that he could pull the wool over everyone’s eyes long enough to betray the whole boiling, but if he, Fraser, thought he, Forbes, was fool enough to be gulled by antic tricks in the public street and a lot of talk with nay more substance than the shrieking of gulls, he, Fraser, had best think again!

Jamie slapped a hand flat on the table, making it boom like a drum, and rattling the cups. He rose, glaring down at Forbes.

“Do ye libel my honor, sir?” he cried, also shifting to English. “For if ye do, let us go out, and we shall settle the matter at once, yea or nay!”

Sweat was streaming down Forbes’s broad, flushed face, and his eyes were gleaming with anger, but even overheated as he was, Roger saw belated caution pluck at his sleeve. Roger hadn’t seen the fight in Cross Creek, but Ian had told him the details, meanwhile laughing his head off. The last thing Neil Forbes could desire was a duel.

“Have ye honor to libel, sir?” Forbes demanded, standing in turn, and drawing himself up as though about to address the jury. “Ye come here acting the great one, carousing and showing away like a sailor come ashore with prize money in his pocket—but have we any evidence that your words are more than puffery? Puffery, I say, sir!”

Jamie stood, both hands braced on the tabletop, surveying Forbes through narrowed eyes. Roger had once seen that expression focused on himself. It had been followed rapidly by the sort of mayhem customary in a Glasgow pub on Saturday night—only more so. The only thing to be thankful for was that Forbes had clearly not heard any whiff of Malva Christie’s accusation, or there would be blood on the floor already.

Jamie straightened slowly, and his left hand went toward his waist. There were gasps, and Forbes paled. But Jamie had reached for his sporran, not his dirk, and plunged his hand inside.

“As to that . . . sir . . .” he said in a low, even voice that carried through the room, “I have made myself clear. I am for liberty, and to that end, I pledge my name, my fortune”—here he withdrew his hand from his sporran and slammed it on the table; a small purse, two golden guineas, and a jewel—“and my sacred honor.”

The room was silent, all eyes focused on the black diamond, which shimmered with a baleful light. Jamie paused for the space of three heartbeats, then drew breath.

“Is there any man here who gives me the lie?” he said. It was ostensibly addressed to the room at large, but his eyes were fixed on Forbes. The lawyer had gone a mottled red and gray, like a bad oyster, but said nothing.

Jamie paused again, looked once round the room, then picked up purse, money, and jewel, and stalked out the door. Outside, the town clock chimed two, the strokes slow and heavy in the humid air.

L’OIGNON–INTELLIGENCER

Upon the 20th of this month, a Congress met in Charlotte, composed of Delegates from Mecklenberg County, for the purpose of discussion upon the issue of current Relations with Great Britain. After due Deliberation, a Declaration was proposed and accepted, whose Provisions are Herewith Shown:

1. That whosoever directly or indirectly abetted or in any way, form or manner countenanced to unchartered & dangerous invasion of our rights as claimed by G. Britain is an enemy to this County—to America & to the inherent & inaliable rights of man.

2. We the Citizens of Mecklenburg County do hereby desolve the political bands which have connected us to the Mother Country & hereby absolve ourselves from all allegiance to the British crown & abjure all political connection, contract or association with that nation who have wantonly trampled on our rights & liberties & inhumanely shed the innocent blood of American patriots at Lexington.

3. We do hereby declare ourselves a free and independent people—are & of right ought to be a sovereign & self-governing association, under the controul of no power other than that of our God & the general government of the congress, to the maintainence of which independence civil & religious we solemnly pledge to each other our mutual cooperation, our lives, our fortunes & our most sacred honor.

4. As we now acknowledge the existence & controul of no law or legal officers, civil or military, within this County, we do hereby ordain & adopt as a rule of life, all, each & every of our former laws—wherein nevertheless the crown of Great Britain never can be considered as holding rights, privileges, immunities, or authority therein.

5. It is also further decreed that all, each & every military officer in this County is hereby reinstated in his former command & authority, he acting conformably to these regulations. And that every member present of this delegation shall henceforth be a civil officer, viz. a Justice of the peace in the character of a “Committee-man” to issue process, hear & determine all matters of controversy according to sd. adopted laws—to preserve peace, union & harmony in sd. County & to use every exertion to spread the love of country & fire of freedom throughout America until a more general & organized government be established in this province. A selection from the members present shall constitute a Committee of public safety for sd. County.

6. That a copy of these resolutions be transmitted by express to the President of the Continental Congress assembled in Philadelphia, to be laid before that body.

84

AMONG THE LETTUCES

SOME IDIOT—OR CHILD— had left the gate of my garden open. I hurried up the path, hoping that it hadn’t been that way for long. If it had been open overnight, the deer would have eaten every lettuce, onion, and bulb plant in the plot, to say nothing of ruining the—

I jerked, letting out a small cry. Something like a red-hot hat pin had stabbed me in the neck, and I smacked the place by reflex. An electric jab in the temple made my vision go white, then blur with water, and a fiery stab in the crook of my elbow—bees.

I blundered off the path, suddenly aware that the air was full of them, frenzied and stinging. I plunged through the brush, barely able to see for the watering of my eyes, aware too late of the low-pitched thrum of a hive at war.

Bear! God damn it, a bear had got in! In the half-second between the first sting and the next, I had glimpsed one of the bee gums lying on its side in the dirt just inside the gate, combs and honey spilling out of it like entrails.

I ducked under branches and flung myself into a patch of pokeweed, gasping and cursing incoherently. The sting on my neck throbbed viciously, and the one on my temple was already puffing up, pulling at the eyelid on that side. I felt something crawling on my ankle, and batted it away by reflex before it could sting.

I wiped tears away, blinking. A few bees sailed past through the yellow-flowered stems above me, aggressive as Spitfires. I crawled a little farther, trying at once to get away, slap at my hair, and shake out my skirts, lest any more of them be trapped in my clothes.

I was breathing like a steam engine, shaking with adrenaline and fury.

“Bloody hell . . . frigging bear . . . God damn it . . .”

My strong impulse was to rush in screaming and flapping my skirts, in hopes of panicking the bear. An equally strong impulse of self-preservation overcame it.

I scrambled to my feet, and keeping low in case of enraged bees, thrust my way through the brush uphill, meaning to circle the garden and come down on the other side, away from the ravaged hives. I could get back to the path that way and down to the house, where I could recruit help—preferably armed—to drive away the monster before it destroyed the rest of the hives.

No point in keeping quiet, and I crashed through bushes and stumbled over logs, panting with rage. I tried to see the bear, but the growth of grapevines over the palisades was too thick to show me anything but rustling leaves and sun shadows. The side of my face felt as though it were on fire, and jolts of pain shot through the trigeminal nerve with each heartbeat, making the muscles twitch and the eye water terribly.

I reached the path just below the spot where the first bee had stung me—my gardening basket lay where I’d dropped it, tools spilled out. I grabbed the knife I used for everything from pruning to digging roots; it was a stout thing, with a six-inch blade, and while it might not impress the bear, I felt better for having it.

I glanced at the open gate, ready to run—but saw nothing. The ruined hive lay just as I’d seen it, the wax combs broken and squashed, the smell of honey thick in the air. But the combs were not scattered; shattered pillars of wax still stuck to the exposed wooden base of the hive.

A bee zoomed menacingly past my ear and I ducked, but didn’t run. It was quiet. I tried to stop panting, trying to hear over the thunder of my own racing pulse. Bears weren’t quiet; they didn’t need to be. I should hear snufflings and gulping noises, at least—rustlings of broken foliage, the lap of a long tongue. I didn’t.

Cautiously, I moved sideways up the path, a step at a time, ready to run. There was a good-size oak, about twenty feet away. Could I make that, if the bear popped out?

I listened as hard as I could, but heard nothing beyond the soft rustle of the grapevines and the sound of angry bees, now dropped to a whining hum as they gathered thick on the remnants of their combs.

It was gone. Had to be. Still wary, I edged closer, knife in hand.

I smelled the blood and saw her in the same instant. She was lying in the salad bed, her skirt flown out like some gigantic, rusty flower blooming amid the young lettuces.

I was kneeling by her, with no memory of reaching her, and the flesh of her arm was warm when I grasped her wrist—such small, fragile bones—but slack, there was no pulse—Of course not, said the cold small watcher inside, her throat is cut, there’s blood everywhere, but you can see the artery isn’t pumping; she’s dead.

Malva’s gray eyes were open, blank with surprise, and her cap had fallen off. I clutched her wrist harder, as though I must be able to find the buried pulse, to find some trace of life . . . and did. The bulge of her belly moved, very slightly, and I dropped the flaccid arm at once and seized my knife, scrabbling for the hem of her skirt.

I acted without thought, without fear, without doubt—there wasn’t anything but the knife and the pressure, the flesh parting and the faint possibility, the panic of absolute need . . .

I slit the belly from navel to pubis, pushing hard through slack muscle, nicked the womb but no matter, cut quick but careful through the wall of the womb, dropped the knife, and thrust my hands into the depths of Malva Christie, still blood-warm, and seized the child, cupping, turning, wrenching hard in my frenzy to pull it free, bring it out from sure death, bring it into the air, help it breathe. . . . Malva’s body flopped and heaved as I jerked, limp limbs flailing with the force of my yanking.

It came free with the suddenness of birth, and I was swiping blood and mucus from the tiny sealed face, blowing into its lungs, gently, gently, you have to blow gently, the alveoli of the lungs are like cobwebs, so small, compressing its chest, no more than a hand’s span, two fingers pressing, no more, and felt the tiny spring of it, delicate as a watch spring, felt the movement, small squirms, a faint instinctive struggling—and felt it fade, that flicker, that tiny spark of life, cried out in anguish and clutched the tiny, doll-like body to my breast, still warm, still warm.

“Don’t go,” I said, “don’t go, don’t go, please don’t go.” But the vibrancy faded, a small blue glow that seemed to light the palms of my hands for an instant, then dwindle like a candle flame, to the coal of a smoldering wick, to the faintest trace of brightness—then everything was dark.

I was still sitting in the brilliant sun, crying and blood-soaked, the body of the little boy in my lap, the butchered corpse of my Malva beside me, when they found me.

85

THE STOLEN BRIDE

A WEEK PASSED AFTER MALVA’S DEATH, and there was no slightest hint of who had killed her. Whispering, sidelong glances, and a palpable fog of suspicion hung about the Ridge, but despite Jamie’s every effort, no one could be located who knew—or would say—anything at all useful.

I could see the tension and frustration building up in Jamie, day by day, and knew it must find an outlet. I had no idea what he might do, though.

After breakfast on the Wednesday, Jamie stood glowering at the window in his study, then slammed down his fist on the table, with a suddenness that made me jump.

“I have reached the mortal limit of endurance,” he informed me. “One moment more of this, and I shall run mad. I must do something, and I will.” Without waiting for any response to this statement, he strode to the office door, flung it open, and bellowed, “Joseph!” into the hall.

Mr. Wemyss appeared out of the kitchen, where he had been sweeping the chimney at Mrs. Bug’s direction, looking startled, pale, soot-smudged, and generally unkempt.

Jamie ignored the black footprints on the study floor—he had burned the rug—and fixed Mr. Wemyss with a commanding gaze.

“D’ye want that woman?” he demanded.

“Woman?” Mr. Wemyss was understandably bewildered. “What—oh. Are you—might you be referring to Fraulein Berrisch?”

“Who else? D’ye want her?” Jamie repeated.

It had plainly been a long time since anyone had asked Mr. Wemyss what he wanted, and it took him some time to gather his wits from the shock of it.

Brutal prodding by Jamie forced him past deprecating murmurs about the Fraulein’s friends no doubt being the best judge of her happiness, his own unsuitability, poverty, and general unworthiness as a husband, and into—at long last—a reckless admission that, well, if the Fraulein should not be terribly averse to the prospect, perhaps . . . well . . . in a word . . .

“Aye, sir,” he said, looking terrified at his own boldness. “I do. Very much!” he blurted.

“Good.” Jamie nodded, pleased. “We’ll go and get her, then.”

Mr. Wemyss was open-mouthed with astonishment; so was I. Jamie swung round to me, issuing orders with the confidence and joie de vivre of a sea-captain with a fat prize in view.

“Go and find Young Ian for me, will ye, Sassenach? And tell Mrs. Bug to put up food, enough for a week’s travel for four men. And then fetch Roger Mac; we’ll need a minister.”

He rubbed his hands together in satisfaction, then clapped Mr. Wemyss on the shoulder, causing a small puff of soot to rise from his clothes.

“Go fettle yourself, Joseph,” he said. “And comb your hair. We’re going to go and steal ye a bride.”

“. . . AND PUT A PISTOL TO his breest, his breest,” Young Ian chanted, “Marry me, marry me, minister, or else I’ll be your priest, your priest—or else I’ll be your priest!”

“Of course,” Roger said, dropping the song, in which a bold young man named Willie rides with his friends to abduct and forcibly marry a young woman who proves bolder yet, “we’ll hope ye prove a wee bit more capable than Willie upon the night, aye, Joseph?”

Mr. Wemyss, scrubbed, dressed, and fairly vibrating with excitement, gave him a glance of complete incomprehension. Roger grinned, tightening the strap of his saddlebag.

“Young Willie obliges a minister to marry him to the young woman at gunpoint,” he explained to Mr. Wemyss, “but then, when he takes his stolen bride to bed, she’ll have none of him—and his best efforts will not avail to force her.”

“And so return me, Willie, to my hame, as virgin as I came, I came—as virgin as I came!” Ian caroled.

“Now, mind,” Roger said warningly to Jamie, who was heaving his own saddlebags over Gideon’s back. “If the Fraulein is at all unwilling . . .”

“What, unwilling to be wed to Joseph?” Jamie clapped Mr. Wemyss on the back, then bent to give him a foot up and fairly heaved the smaller man into the saddle. “I canna see any woman of sense turning from such an opportunity, can you, a charaid?”

He took a quick look round the clearing, to see all was well, then ran up the steps and kissed me in quick farewell, before running down again to mount Gideon, who for once seemed amenable and made no effort to bite him.

“Keep well, mo nighean donn,” he said, smiling into my eyes. And then they were gone, thundering out of the clearing like a gang of Highland raiders, Ian’s ear-splitting whoops ringing from the trees.

ODDLY ENOUGH, the departure of the men seemed to ease things slightly. The talk, of course, went merrily on—but without Jamie or Ian there to serve as a lightning-rod, it merely crackled to and fro like St. Elmo’s fire; spitting, fizzing, and making everyone’s hair stand on end, but essentially a harmless phenomenon, unless touched directly.

The house felt less an embattled fortress, and more the eye of a storm.

Also, with Mr. Wemyss out of the house, Lizzie came to visit, bringing little Rodney Joseph, as the baby was called—Roger having set his face firmly against the young fathers’ enthusiastic suggestions of Tilgath-pileser and Ichabod. Wee Rogerina had come out of it all right, being now commonly known as Rory, but Roger declined entirely to hear of a child being christened anything that might result in his being known to the world at large as Icky.

Rodney seemed a very congenial child, in part because he had never quite lost that air of round-eyed astonishment that made him seem agog to hear what you had to say. Lizzie’s astonishment at his birth had mutated into an enchantment that might have completely eclipsed Jo and Kezzie, were it not for the fact that they shared it.

Either one of them would—unless forcibly stopped—spend half an hour discussing Rodney’s bowel habits with the intensity heretofore reserved for new snares and the peculiar things found inside the stomachs of animals they had killed. Pigs, it seemed, really would eat anything; so would Rodney.

A few days after the men’s departure on their bride-stealing expedition, Brianna had come up from her cabin with Jemmy to visit, and Lizzie likewise had brought Rodney. The two of them joined Amy McCallum and me in the kitchen, where we were spending a pleasant evening sewing by the light of the fire, admiring Rodney, keeping a negligent eye on Jemmy and Aidan—and after a certain amount of cautious exploration, devoting ourselves wholeheartedly to a rundown of the male population of the Ridge, viewed in the light of suspects.

I, of course, had a more personal and painful interest in the topic, but all three of the young women were solidly on the side of justice—i.e., the side that refused even to contemplate the notion that either Jamie or I might have had anything to do with the murder of Malva Christie.

For myself, I found such open speculation rather a comfort. I had, of course, been engaging in private conjecture nonstop—and an exhausting business it was, too. Not only was it unpleasant to visualize every man I knew in the role of cold-blooded murderer—the process obliged me continuously to reimagine the murder itself, and relive the moment when I had found her.

“I’d really hate to think it might have been Bobby,” Bree said, frowning as she pushed a wooden darning egg into the heel of a sock. “He seems just such a nice boy.”

Lizzie drew down her chin at this, pursing her lips.

“Oh, aye, he’s a sweet lad,” she said. “But what ye might call warm-blooded.”

All of us looked at her.

“Well,” she said mildly, “I didna let him, but he tried hard enough. And when I said no, he did go off and kick a tree.”

“My husband would do that sometimes, if I refused him,” Amy said, thoughtful. “But I’m sure he wouldna have cut my throat.”

“Well, but Malva didn’t refuse whoever it was,” Bree pointed out, squinting as she threaded her darning needle. “That was the problem. He killed her because she was pregnant, and he was afraid she’d tell everyone.”

“Ho!” Lizzie said, triumphant. “Well, then—it canna have been Bobby at all, can it? For when my Da turned him awa’—” A brief shadow crossed her face at mention of her father, who still had not spoken a word to her nor acknowledged the birth of little Rodney. “Did he not think of speiring for Malva Christie? Ian said he meant to. And if she were with child by him—well, then, her father would be obliged to agree, would he not?”

Amy nodded, finding this convincing, but Bree had objections.

“Yes—but she was insisting that it wasn’t his baby. And he threw up in the blackberry bushes when he heard that she was”—her lips compressed momentarily—“well, he wasn’t happy at all. So he might have killed her out of jealousy, don’t you think?”

Lizzie and Amy hmm’d dubiously at this—both of them were fond of Bobby—but were obliged to admit the possibility.

“What I wonder about,” I said a little hesitantly, “is the older men. The married ones. Everyone knows about the young men who were interested in her—but I’ve certainly seen more than one married man glance at her in passing.”

“I nominate Hiram Crombie,” Bree said at once, stabbing her needle into the heel of the sock. Everyone laughed, but she shook her head.

“No, I’m serious. It’s always the really religious, very uptight ones that turn out to have secret drawers full of women’s underwear, and slink around molesting choirboys.”

Amy’s jaw dropped.

“Drawers full of women’s underwear?” she said. “What . . . shifts and stays? Whatever would he do wi’ them?”

Brianna flushed at that, having forgotten her audience. She coughed, but there was no good way out.

“Er . . . well. I was thinking more of French women’s underwear,” she said weakly. “Um . . . lacy sorts of things.”

“Oh, French,” Lizzie said, nodding wisely. Everyone knew about the notorious reputation of French ladies—though I doubted that any woman on Fraser’s Ridge save myself had ever seen one. In the interests of covering Bree’s lapse, though, I obligingly told them about La Nestlé, the King of France’s mistress, who had had her n**ples pierced and appeared at court with her br**sts exposed, sporting gold hoops through them.

“Another few months o’ this,” Lizzie said darkly, looking down at Rodney, who was nursing fiercely at her breast, tiny fists clenched with effort, “and I shall be able to do the same. I’ll tell Jo and Kezzie to fetch me back some hoops when they sell their hides, aye?”

In the midst of the laughter at this, the sound of a knock at the front door passed unnoticed—or would have, if not for Jemmy and Aidan, who had been playing in Jamie’s study, rushing into the kitchen to tell us about it.

“I’ll get it.” Bree set down her darning, but I was already on my feet.

“No, I’ll go.” I waved her back, picked up a candlestick, and went down the dark hallway, heart beating fast. Visitors after dark were almost always an emergency of one kind or another.

So was this one, though not any kind I might have expected. For a moment, I didn’t even recognize the tall woman who stood swaying on the stoop, white-faced and gaunt. Then she whispered, “Frau Fraser? I may—may I komm?” and fell into my arms.

The noise of it brought all the young women rushing to help, and we had Monika Berrisch—for it was indeed Mr. Wemyss’s putative bride—laid on the settle, covered with quilts, and plied with hot toddy in nothing flat.

She recovered quickly—there was nothing wrong with her, really, save exhaustion and hunger—she said she hadn’t eaten in three days—and within a short time, was able to sit up eating soup, and explain her astonishing presence.

“It wass my husband’s sister,” she said, closing her eyes in momentary bliss at the aroma of split-pea soup with ham. “She did not want me, effer, and when her husband had the bad accident and lost his wagon, so there was not so much money to keep us all, she did not want me more.”

She had, she said, yearned for Joseph, but had not had either the strength nor yet the means to withstand her family’s opposition and insist upon returning to him.

“Oh?” Lizzie was examining her in a close, but not unfriendly manner. “What happpened, then?”

Fraulein Berrisch turned large, gentle eyes on her.

“I could not bear it more,” she said simply. “I wish so much to be with Joseph. My husband’s sister, she wish me to be gone, so she will give a small bit of money. So I came,” she concluded, with a shrug, and took another small, greedy spoonful of soup.

“You . . . walked?” Brianna said. “From Halifax?”

Fraulein Berrisch nodded, licking the spoon, and put out a foot from under the quilts. Her shoes had worn entirely through at the sole; she had wrapped them with random scraps of leather and strips of fabric torn from her shift, so her feet looked like bundles of filthy rags.

“Elizabeth,” she said, looking earnestly at Lizzie. “I hope you do not mind I komm. Your father—he is hier? I hope so much he does not mind, too.”

“Umm, no,” I said, exchanging a glance with Lizzie. “He isn’t here—but I’m sure that he’ll be delighted to see you!”

“Oh?” Her gaunt face, which had shown alarm at hearing that Mr. Wemyss was not here, grew radiant when we told her where he was.

“Oh,” she breathed, clasping the spoon to her bosom as though it were Mr. Wemyss’s head. “Oh, mein Kavalier!” Beaming with joy, she looked round at all of us—and for the first time, noticed Rodney, snoozing in his basket at Lizzie’s feet.

“But who is this?” she cried, and leaned forward to look at him. Not quite asleep, Rodney opened round, dark eyes and regarded her with a solemn, sleepy interest.

“This is my wee bairnie. Rodney Joseph, he’s called—for my Da, ken?” Lizzie hoisted him out of his basket, chubby knees pulled up under his chin, and laid him gently in Monika’s arms.

She cooed over him in German, face alight.

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