A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 82

   

He shouted, though it hurt his head, and within a few moments, Ian, the dear wee lad, was beside him, cutting through the ropes. He rolled over, unable for a moment to make his cramped muscles work, then managed to get his hands under him and rise enough to vomit.

“All right, Uncle Jamie?” Ian sounded vaguely amused, damn him.

“I’ll do. D’ye ken where Claire is?” He got to his feet, swaying, and was fumbling at his breeches; his fingers felt like sausages, and the broken one was throbbing, the pins and needles of returning circulation stabbing through the jagged ends of bone. All discomfort was forgotten for an instant, though, in the rush of overwhelming relief.

“Jesus, Uncle Jamie,” Ian said, impressed. “Aye, I do. They’ve taken her to New Bern. There’s a sheriff there that Forbes says might take her.”

“Forbes?” He swung round in his astonishment, and nearly fell, saving himself with a hand on the creaking wood wall. “Neil Forbes?”

“The very same.” Ian caught him with a hand beneath his elbow to steady him; the flimsy board had cracked under his weight. “Brown went here and there and talked to this one and that—but it was Forbes he did business with at last, in Cross Creek.”

“Ye heard what they said?”

“I heard.” Ian’s voice was casual, but with an underlying excitement—and no little pride in his accomplishment.

Brown’s aim was simple at this point—to rid himself of the encumbrance the Frasers had become. He knew of Forbes and his relations with Jamie, owing to all the gossip after the tar incident in the summer of last year, and the confrontation at Mecklenberg in May. And so he offered to hand the two of them over to Forbes, for what use the lawyer might make of the situation.

“So he strode to and fro a bit, thinking—Forbes, I mean—they were in his warehouse, ken, by the river, and me hiding behind the barrels o’ tar. And then he laughs, as though he’s just thought of something clever.”

Forbes’s suggestion was that Brown’s men should take Jamie, suitably bound, to a small landing that he owned, near Brunswick. From there, he would be taken onto a ship headed for England, and thus safely removed from interference in the affairs of either Forbes or Brown—and, incidentally, rendered unable to defend his wife.

Claire, meanwhile, should be committed to the mercies of the law. If she were to be found guilty, well, that would be the end of her. If not, the scandal attendant upon a trial would both occupy the attention of anyone connected to her and destroy any influence they might have—thus leaving Fraser’s Ridge ripe for the pickings, and Neil Forbes a clear field toward claiming leadership of the Scottish Whigs in the colony.

Jamie listened to this in silence, torn between anger and a reluctant admiration.

“A reasonably neat scheme,” he said. He was feeling steadier now, the queasiness disappearing with the cleansing flow of anger through his blood.

“Oh, it gets better, Uncle,” Ian assured him. “Ye recall a gentleman named Stephen Bonnet?”

“I do. What about him?”

“It’s Mr. Bonnet’s ship, Uncle, that’s to take ye to England.” Amusement was beginning to show in his nephew’s voice again. “It seems Lawyer Forbes has had a verra profitable partnership with Bonnet for some time—him and some merchant friends in Wilmington. They’ve shares in both the ship and its cargoes. And since the English blockade, the profits have been greater still; I take it that our Mr. Bonnet is a most experienced smuggler.”

Jamie said something extremely foul in French, and went quickly to look out of the shed. The water lay calm and beautiful, a moon path stretching silver out to sea. There was a ship out there; small and black and perfect as a spider on a sheet of paper. Bonnet’s?

“Christ,” he said. “When will they come in, d’ye think?”

“I dinna ken,” Ian said, sounding unsure for the first time. “Is the tide coming in, would ye say, Uncle? Or going out?”

Jamie glanced down at the water rippling under the boathouse, as though it might offer some clue.

“How would I know, for God’s sake? And what difference would it make?” He rubbed a hand hard over his face, trying to think. They’d taken his dirk, of course. He had a sgian dhu, carried in his stocking, but somehow doubted that its three-inch blade would offer much help in the present situation.

“What have ye got by way of weapons, Ian? Ye dinna have your bow with ye, I don’t suppose?”

Ian shook his head regretfully. He had joined Jamie in the door of the boathouse, and the moon showed the hunger in his face as he eyed the ship.

“I’ve two decent knives, a dirk, and a pistol. There’s my rifle, but I left it with the horse.” He jerked his head toward the dark line of the distant wood. “Shall I fetch it? They might see me.”

Jamie thought for a moment, tapping his fingers against the jamb of the door, ’til the pain of the broken one made him stop. The urge to lie in wait for Bonnet and take him was a physical thing; he understood Ian’s hunger, and shared it. But his rational mind was busy reckoning the odds, and would insist upon presenting them, little as the vengefully animal part of him wished to know them.

There was not yet any sign of a boat coming from the ship. Always assuming that the ship out there was indeed Bonnet’s—and that, they didn’t know for sure—it might still be hours before anyone came to fetch him away. And when they did, what odds that Bonnet himself would come? He was the ship’s captain; would he come on such an errand, or send minions?

With a rifle, if Bonnet were in the boat, Jamie would wager any amount that he could shoot the man from ambush. If he were in the boat. If he were recognizable in the dark. And while he could hit him, he might not kill him.

If Bonnet were not in the boat, though . . . then it would be a matter of waiting ’til the boat came close enough, leaping aboard, and overpowering whoever was aboard—how many would come on such an errand? Two, three, four? They must all be killed or disabled, and then it would be a matter of rowing the damn boat back out to the ship—where all aboard would doubtless have noticed the stramash taking place on shore, and be prepared either to drop a cannonball through the bottom of the boat or to wait for them to haul alongside and then pick them off from the rail with small-arms fire, like sitting ducks.

And if they should somehow succeed in getting aboard without notice—then searching the goddamn ship for Bonnet himself, hunting him down, and killing him, without attracting undue notice from the crew . . .

This laborious analysis ran through his mind in the time it took to breathe, and was as quickly dismissed. If they were to be captured or killed, Claire would be alone and defenseless. He could not risk it. Still, he thought, trying to comfort himself, he could find Forbes—and would, when the time came.

“Aye, well, then,” he said, and turned away with a sigh. “Have ye but the one horse, Ian?”

“Aye,” Ian said with a matching sigh. “But I ken where we can maybe steal another.”

92

AMANUENSIS

TWO DAYS PASSED. Hot, damp days in the sweltering dark, and I could feel various kinds of mold, fungus, and rot trying to take hold in my crevices—to say nothing of the omnivorous, omnipresent cockroaches, who seemed determined to nibble my eyebrows the moment the light was put out. The leather of my shoes was clammy and limp, my hair hung lank and dirty, and—like Sadie Ferguson—I took to spending most of my time in my shift.

When Mrs. Tolliver appeared and ordered us to come assist with the washing, therefore, we abandoned the latest game of loo—she was winning—and nearly pushed each other over in our haste to oblige.

It was much hotter in the yard, with the laundry fire roaring, and quite as damp as it had been in the cell, with the thick clouds of moisture boiling off the big kettle of clothes and plastering strands of hair to our faces. Our shifts already clung to our bodies, the grubby linen almost transparent with sweat—laundry was heavy work. There were, however, no bugs, and if the sun shone blinding, and fierce enough to redden my nose and arms—well, it shone, and that was something to be grateful for.

I asked Mrs. Tolliver about my erstwhile patient and her child, but she merely pressed her lips tight and shook her head, looking pinched and severe. The sheriff had been absent the night before; there had been no sound of his booming voice in the kitchen. And from the green-gilled looks of Maisie Tolliver herself, I diagnosed a long and solitary night with the gin bottle, followed by a fairly ghastly dawn.

“You’ll feel much better if you sit in the shade and sip . . . water,” I said. “Lots of water.” Tea or coffee would be better, but these substances were more costly than gold in the colony, and I doubted a sheriff’s wife would have any. “If you have any ipecacuanha . . . or perhaps some mint . . .”

“I thank you for your valuable opinion, Mrs. Fraser!” she snapped, though she swayed, rather, and her cheeks were pale and glossy with sweat.

I shrugged, and bent my attention to the task of levering a wad of sopping, steaming clothes from the filthy suds with a five-foot wooden laundry spoon, so worn with use that my sweaty hands slipped on the smooth wood.

We got the lot laboriously washed, rinsed, scaldingly wrung, and hung upon a line to dry, then sank gasping into the thin line of shade afforded by the side of the house, and took turns passing a tin dipper back and forth, gulping lukewarm water from the well bucket. Mrs. Tolliver, disregarding her elevated social position, sat down, too, very suddenly.

I turned to offer her the dipper, only to see her eyes roll back into her head. She didn’t so much fall as dissolve backward, subsiding slowly into a heap of damp, checked gingham.

“Is she dead?” Sadie Ferguson inquired with interest. She glanced to and fro, obviously estimating the chances of making a run for it.

“No. Bad hangover, possibly aggravated by a slight case of sunstroke.” I’d got hold of her pulse, which was light and fast, but quite steady. I was myself debating the wisdom of abandoning Mrs. Tolliver to the dangers of aspirating her own vomit and absconding, even barefoot and in my shift, but was forestalled by male voices coming round the corner of the house.

Two men—one was Tolliver’s constable, whom I’d seen briefly when Brown’s men had delivered me to the gaol. The other was a stranger, very well dressed, with silver coat buttons and a silk waistcoat, rather the worse for sweat stains. This gentleman, a heavyset sort of about forty, frowned at the scene of dissipation before him.

“Are these the prisoners?” he asked in tones of distaste.

“Aye, sir,” the constable said. “Leastwise, the two in their shifts is. ’Tother one’s the sheriff’s wife.”

Silver Buttons’s nostrils pinched in briefly in receipt of this intelligence, then flared.

“Which is the midwife?”

“That would be me,” I said, straightening up and trying for an air of dignity. “I am Mrs. Fraser.”

“Are you,” he said, his tone indicating that I might have said I was Queen Charlotte, for all it mattered to him. He looked me up and down in a disparaging fashion, shook his head, then turned to the sweating constable.

“What is she charged with?”

The constable, a rather dim young man, pursed his lips at this, looking dubiously back and forth between us.

“Ahh . . . well, one of ’em’s a forger,” he said, “and ’tother’s a murderess. But as to which bein’ which . . .”

“I’m the murderess,” Sadie said bravely, adding loyally, “She’s a very fine midwife!” I looked at her in surprise, but she shook her head slightly and compressed her lips, adjuring me to keep quiet.

“Oh. Hmm. All right, then. Have you a gown . . . madam?” At my nod, he said briefly, “Get dressed,” and turned to the constable, taking out a vast silk handkerchief from his pocket, with which to wipe his broad pink face. “I’ll take her, then. You’ll tell Mr. Tolliver.”

“I will, sir,” the constable assured him, more or less bowing and scraping. He glanced down at the unconscious form of Mrs. Tolliver, then frowned at Sadie.

“You, there. Take her inside and see to her. Hop!”

“Oh, yes, sir,” Sadie said, and gravely pushed up her sweat-fogged spectacles with one forefinger. “Right away, sir!”

I had no opportunity to speak with Sadie, and barely time enough to struggle into my bedraggled gown and stays and seize my small bag before being escorted into a carriage—rather bedraggled itself, but once of good quality.

“Would you mind telling me who you are, and where you’re taking me?” I inquired, after we had rattled through two or three cross streets, my companion gazing out the window with an abstracted sort of frown.

My question roused him, and he blinked at me, only then seeming to realize that I was not in fact an inanimate object.

“Oh. Beg pardon, madam. We are going to the Governor’s Palace. Have you not a cap?”

“No.”

He grimaced, as though he’d expected nothing else, and resumed his private thoughts.

They’d finished the place, and very nicely, too. William Tryon, the previous governor, had built the Governor’s Palace, but had been sent to New York before construction had been finished. Now the enormous brick edifice with its graceful spreading wings was complete, even to the lawns and ivy beds that lined the drive, though the stately trees that would eventually surround it were mere saplings. The carriage pulled up on the drive, but we did not—of course—enter by the imposing front entrance, but rather scuttled round the back and down the stairs to the servants’ quarters in the basement.

Here I was hastily shoved into a maid’s room, handed a comb, basin, and ewer, and a borrowed cap, and urged to make myself look less like a slattern, as quickly as possible.

My guide—Mr. Webb was his name, as I learned from the cook’s respectful greeting to him—waited with obvious impatience while I made my hasty ablutions, then grasped my arm and urged me upstairs. We ascended by a narrow back stair to the second floor, where a very young and frightened-looking maidservant was waiting.

“Oh, you’ve come, sir, at last!” She bobbed a curtsy to Mr. Webb, giving me a curious glance. “Is this the midwife?”

“Yes. Mrs. Fraser—Dilman.” He nodded at the girl, giving only her surname, the English fashion for house servants. She curtsied to me in turn, then beckoned me toward a door that stood ajar.

The room was large and gracious, furnished with a canopied bed, a walnut commode, armoire, and armchair, though the air of elegant refinement was somewhat impaired by a heap of mending, a ratty sewing basket overturned and spilling its threads, and a basket of children’s toys. In the bed was a large mound, which—given the evidence to hand—I rather supposed must be Mrs. Martin, the Governor’s wife.

This proved to be the case when Dilman curtsied again, murmuring my name to her. She was round—very round, given her advanced state of pregnancy—with a small, sharp nose and a nearsighted way of peering that reminded me irresistibly of Beatrix Potter’s Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle. In terms of personality, not quite so much.

“Who the devil is this?” she demanded, poking a frowsy, capped head out of the bedclothes.

“Midwife, mum,” Dilman said, bobbing again. “Have you slept well, mum?”

“Of course not,” Mrs. Martin said crossly. “This beastly child’s kicked my liver black and blue, I’ve puked all night, I’ve sweated through my sheets, and I have a shaking ague. I was told there was no midwife to be found within the county.” She gave me a dyspeptic look. “Where did you discover this person, the local prison?”

“Actually, yes,” I said, unslinging my bag from my shoulder. “How far gone are you, how long have you been ill, and when’s the last time you moved your bowels?”

She looked marginally more interested, and waved Dilman out of the room.

“What did she say your name was?”

“Fraser. Are you experiencing any symptoms of early labor? Cramping? Bleeding? Intermittent pain in the back?”

She gave me a sideways look, but did begin to answer my questions. From which, in the fullness of time, I eventually was able to diagnose an acute case of food poisoning, likely caused by a leftover slice of oyster pie, consumed—with quite a lot of other edibles—in a fit of pregnancy-induced greed the day before.

“I have not an ague?” She withdrew the tongue she had allowed me to inspect, frowning.

“You have not. Not yet, anyway,” honesty compelled me to add. It was no wonder she thought she had; I had learned in the course of the examination that a particularly virulent sort of fever was abroad in the town—and in the palace. The Governor’s secretary had died of it two days before, and Dilman was the only upstairs servant still on her feet.

I got her out of bed, and helped her to the armchair, where she subsided, looking like a squashed cream cake. The room was hot and stuffy, and I opened the window in hopes of a breeze.

“God’s teeth, Mrs. Fraser, do you mean to kill me?” She clutched her wrapper tight around her belly, hunching her shoulders as though I had admitted a howling blizzard.

“Probably not.”

“But the miasma!” She waved a hand at the window, scandalized. In all truth, mosquitoes were a danger. But it was still several hours ’til sunset, when they would begin to rise.

“We’ll close it in a bit. For the moment, you need air. And possibly something light. Could you stomach a bit of dry toast, do you think?”

She thought that one over, tasting the corners of her mouth with a tentative tongue tip.

“Perhaps,” she decided. “And a cup of tea. Dilman!”

Dilman dismissed to fetch the tea and toast—how long was it since I had even seen real tea? I wondered—I settled down to take a more complete medical history.

How many earlier pregnancies? Six, but a shadow crossed her face, and I saw her glance involuntarily at a wooden puppet, lying near the hearth.

“Are your children in the palace?” I asked, curious. I had heard no sign of any children, and even in a place the size of the palace, it would be difficult to hide six of them.

“No,” she said with a sigh, and put her hands on her belly, holding it almost absently. “We sent the girls to my sister in New Jersey, a few weeks ago.”

A few more questions, and the tea and toast arrived. I left her to eat it in peace, and went to shake out the damp, crumpled bedclothes.

“Is it true?” Mrs. Martin asked suddenly, startling me.

“Is what true?”

“They say you murdered your husband’s pregnant young mistress, and cut the baby from her womb. Did you?”

I put the heel of my hand against my brow and pressed, closing my eyes. How on earth had she heard that? When I thought I could speak, I lowered my hands and opened my eyes.

“She wasn’t his mistress, and I didn’t kill her. As for the rest—yes, I did,” I said as calmly as I could.

She stared at me for a moment, her mouth hanging open. Then she shut it with a snap and crossed her forearms over her belly.

“Trust George Webb to choose me a proper midwife!” she said—and much to my surprise, began to laugh. “He doesn’t know, does he?”

“I would assume not,” I said with extreme dryness. “I didn’t tell him. Who told you?”

“Oh, you are quite notorious, Mrs. Fraser,” she assured me. “Everyone has been talking of it. George has no time for gossip, but even he must have heard of it. He has no memory for names, though. I do.”

A little color was coming back into her face. She took another nibble of toast, chewed, and swallowed gingerly.

“I was not sure that it was you, though,” she admitted. “Not until I asked.” She closed her eyes, grimacing doubtfully, but evidently the toast hit bottom, for she opened them and resumed her nibbling.

“So now that you do know . . . ?” I asked delicately.

“I don’t know. I’ve never known a murderess before.” She swallowed the last of the toast and licked the tips of her fingers before wiping them on the napkin.

“I am not a murderess,” I said.

“Well, of course you’d say so,” she agreed. She took up the cup of tea, surveying me over it with interest. “You don’t look depraved—though I must say, you don’t look quite respectable, either.” She raised the fragrant cup and drank, with a look of bliss that made me conscious that I hadn’t eaten anything since the rather meager bowl of unsalted, unbuttered porridge provided for breakfast by Mrs. Tolliver.

“I’ll have to think about it,” Mrs. Martin said, setting down her cup with a clink. “Take that back to the kitchen,” she said, waving at the tray, “and have them send me up some soup, and perhaps a few sandwiches. I do believe my appetite has come back!”

WELL, NOW BLOODY WHAT? I had been whisked so abruptly from gaol to palace that I felt like a sailor decanted onto land after months at sea, staggering and off-balance. I went obediently down to the kitchen, as instructed, obtained a tray—with a most delectable-smelling bowl of soup—and took it back to Mrs. Martin, walking like an automaton. By the time she dismissed me, my brain had begun to function again, if not yet at full capacity.

I was in New Bern. And, thanks be to God and Sadie Ferguson, out of Sheriff Tolliver’s noisome gaol. Fergus and Marsali were in New Bern. Ergo, the obvious—in fact, the only—thing to do was plainly to escape and find my way to them. They could help me to find Jamie. I clung firmly to Tom Christie’s promise that Jamie wasn’t dead and to the notion that he was findable, because nothing else was tolerable.

Escaping from the Governor’s Palace, though, proved more difficult than I had anticipated. There were guards posted at all the doors, and my attempt to talk my way past one of them failed utterly, leading to the abrupt appearance of Mr. Webb, who took me by the arm and escorted me firmly up the stairs to a hot, stuffy little garret, where he locked me in.

It was better than the gaol, but that was all that could be said for it. There was a cot, a chamber pot, a basin, ewer, and chest of drawers, the latter containing meager bits of clothing. The room showed signs of recent occupancy—but not immediately recent. A film of fine summer dust lay over everything, and while the ewer was full of water, it had obviously been there for some time; a number of moths and other small insects had drowned in it, and a film of the same fine dust floated on the surface.

There was also a small window, painted shut, but determined banging and heaving got it open, and I breathed a heady lungful of hot, muggy air.

I stripped off, removed the dead moths from the pitcher, and washed, a blissful experience that made me feel immensely better, after the last week of unalloyed grime, sweat, and filth. After a moment’s hesitation, I helped myself to a worn linen shift from the chest of drawers, unable to bear the thought of putting my own filthy, sweat-soaked chemise back on.

I could do only so much without soap or shampoo, but even so, felt much improved, and stood by the window, combing out my wet hair—there had been a wooden comb on the chest, though no looking glass—and surveying what I could see from my perch.

There were more guards, posted round the edge of the property. Was that usual? I wondered. I thought perhaps it was not; they seemed uneasy, and very alert; I saw one challenge a man who approached the gate, presenting his weapon in rather belligerent fashion. The man seemed startled and backed up, then turned and walked away fast, glancing backward as he went.

There were a number of uniformed guards—I thought they were perhaps Marines, though I wasn’t sufficiently familiar with uniforms as to be sure of it—clustered round six cannon, these situated on a slight rise before the palace, commanding the town and the harbor’s edge.

There were two nonuniformed men among them; leaning out a bit, I made out the tall, heavyset figure of Mr. Webb, and a shorter man beside him. The shorter man was strolling along the line of cannon, hands folded beneath his coattails, and the Marines, or whatever they were, were saluting him. At a guess, this was the Governor, then: Josiah Martin.

I watched for a little while, but nothing of interest happened, and I found myself overwhelmed with sudden sleepiness, borne down by the strains of the last month and the hot, still air that seemed to press upon me like a hand.

I lay down on the cot in my borrowed shift, and fell instantly asleep.

I SLEPT UNTIL THE middle of the night, when I was again called to attend Mrs. Martin, who seemed to be having a relapse of her digestive difficulties. A slightly pudgy, long-nosed man in nightshirt and cap lurked in the doorway with a candle, looking worried; I took this to be the Governor. He looked hard at me, but made no move to interfere, and I had no time to take much notice of him. By the time the crisis had passed, the Governor—if indeed it was he—had disappeared. The patient now safely asleep, I lay down like a dog on the rug beside her bed, with a rolled-up petticoat as pillow, and went thankfully back to sleep.

It was full daylight when I woke again, and the fire was out. Mrs. Martin was out of bed, calling fretfully into the passage for Dilman.

“Wretched girl,” she said, turning back as I got awkwardly to my feet. “Got the ague, I suppose, like the rest. Or run away.”

I gathered that while several servants were down with the fever, a good many of the others had simply decamped out of fear of contagion.

“You’re quite sure I have not got the tertian ague, Mrs. Fraser?” Mrs. Martin squinted at herself in her looking glass, putting out her tongue and surveying it critically. “I do believe I look yellow.”

In fact, her complexion was a soft English pink, though rather pale from throwing up.

“Keep off the cream cakes and oyster pie in hot weather, don’t eat anything larger than your head at one sitting, and you should be quite all right,” I said, suppressing a yawn. I caught a look at myself in the glass, over her shoulder, and shuddered. I was nearly as pale as she was, with dark circles under my eyes, and my hair . . . well, it was almost clean, that was all that could be said for it.

“I should be let blood,” Mrs. Martin declared. “That is the proper treatment for a plethory; dear Dr. Sibelius always says so. Three or four ounces, perhaps, to be followed by the black draught. Dr. Sibelius says he finds the black-draught answer very well in such cases.” She moved to an armchair and reclined, her belly bulging under her wrapper. She pulled up the sleeve of the wrapper, extending her arm in languorous fashion. “There is a fleam and bowl in the top left drawer, Mrs. Fraser. If you would oblige me?”

The mere thought of letting blood first thing in the morning was enough to make me want to vomit. As for Dr. Sibelius’s black draught, that was laudanum—an alcoholic tincture of opium, and not my treatment of choice for a pregnant woman.

The subsequent acrimonious discussion over the virtues of blood-letting—and I began to think, from the anticipatory gleam in her eye, that the thrill of having a vein opened by a murderess was what she actually desired—was interrupted by the unceremonious entry of Mr. Webb.

“Do I disturb you, mum? My apologies.” He bowed perfunctorily to Mrs. Martin, then turned to me. “You—put on your cap and come with me.”

I did so without protest, leaving Mrs. Martin indignantly unperforated.

Webb ushered me down the gleamingly polished front stair this time, and into a large, gracious, book-lined room. The Governor, now properly wigged, powdered, and elegantly suited, was seated behind a desk overflowing with papers, dockets, scattered quills, blotters, sand-shakers, sealing wax, and all the other impedimenta of an eighteenth-century bureaucrat. He looked hot, bothered, and quite as indignant as his wife.

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