A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 83

   

“What, Webb?” he demanded, scowling at me. “I need a secretary, and you bring me a midwife?”

“She’s a forger,” Webb said baldly. That stopped whatever complaint the Governor had been going to bring forth. He paused, mouth slightly open, still frowning at me.

“Oh,” he said in an altered tone. “Indeed.”

“Accused of forgery,” I said politely. “I haven’t been tried, let alone convicted, you know.”

The Governor’s eyebrows went up, hearing my educated accent.

“Indeed,” he said again, more slowly. He looked me up and down, squinting dubiously. “Where on earth did you get her, Webb?”

“From the gaol.” Webb cast me an indifferent glance, as though I might be some unprepossessing yet useful bit of furniture, like a chamber pot. “When I made inquiries for a midwife, someone told me that this woman had done prodigies with a slave, another prisoner, having a difficult lying-in. And as the matter was urgent, and no other cunning woman to be found . . .” He shrugged, with a faint grimace.

“Hmmmm.” The Governor pulled a handkerchief from his sleeve and dabbed thoughtfully at the plump flesh beneath his chin. “Can you write a fair hand?”

I supposed it would be a poor forger who couldn’t, but contented myself with saying, “Yes.” Fortunately, it was true; in my own time, I had scribbled ball-point prescriptions with the best of them, but now I had trained myself to write clearly with a quill, so that my medical records and case notes should be legible, for the benefit of whoever should read them after me. Once again, I felt a sharp pang at the thought of Malva—but there was no time to think of her.

Still eyeing me speculatively, the Governor nodded toward a straight-backed chair and a smaller desk at the side of the room.

“Sit.” He rose, scrabbled among the papers on his desk, and deposited one in front of me. “Let me see you make a fair copy of that, if you please.”

It was a brief letter to the Royal Council, outlining the Governor’s concerns regarding recent threats to that body, and postponing the next scheduled meeting of the council. I chose a quill from the cut-glass holder on the desk, found a silver penknife by it, trimmed the quill to my liking, uncorked the inkwell, and set about the business, deeply aware of the scrutiny of the two men.

I didn’t know how long my imposture might hold up—Mrs. Governor could blow the gaff at any time—but for the nonce, I thought I probably had a better chance of escape as an accused forger than as an accused murderer.

The Governor took my finished copy, surveyed it, and laid it on the desk with a small grunt of satisfaction.

“Good enough,” he said. “Make eight further copies of that, and then you can go on with these.” Turning back to his own desk, he shuffled together a large sheaf of correspondence, which he deposited in front of me.

The two men—I had no notion of Webb’s office, but he was obviously the Governor’s close friend—returned to a discussion of current business, ignoring me completely.

I went about my assigned task mechanically, finding the scratch of the quill, the ritual of sanding, blotting, shaking, soothing. Copying occupied a very small part of my mind; the rest was free to worry about Jamie, and to think how best to engineer an escape.

I could—and doubtless should—make an excuse after a bit to go and see how Mrs. Martin did. If I could make shift to do so unaccompanied, I would have a few moments of unobserved freedom, during which to make a surreptitious dash for the nearest exit. So far, though, every door I’d seen had been guarded. The Governor’s Palace had a very well-stocked simples closet, alas; it would be hard to invent a need for anything from an apothecary—and even then, unlikely that they’d let me go alone to fetch it.

Waiting for nightfall seemed the best notion; at least if I did get out of the palace, I would have several hours before my absence was noted. If they locked me in again, though . . .

I scratched away assiduously, turning over various unsatisfactory plans, and trying very hard not to envision Jamie’s body turning slowly in the wind, hanging from a tree in some lonely hollow. Christie had given me his word; I clung to that, having nothing else to cling to.

Webb and the Governor murmured together, but their talk was of things I had no notion of, and for the most part, it washed over me like the sound of the sea, meaningless and soothing. After some time, though, Webb came over to instruct me in the sealing and direction of those letters to be sent. I thought of asking why he didn’t lend a hand himself in this clerical emergency, but then saw his hands—both badly twisted with arthritis.

“You write a very fair hand, Mrs. Fraser,” he unbent enough to say, at one point, and gave me a brief, wintry smile. “It is unfortunate that you should have been the forger, rather than the murderess.”

“Why?” I asked, rather astonished at that.

“Why, you are plainly literate,” he said, surprised in turn at my astonishment. “If convicted of murder, you could plead benefit of clergy, and be let off with a public whipping and branding in the face. Forgery, though—” He shook his head, pursing his lips. “Capital crime, no pardon possible. If convicted of forgery, Mrs. Fraser, I am afraid you must be hanged.”

My feelings of gratitude toward Sadie Ferguson underwent an abrupt reappraisal.

“Indeed,” I said as coolly as possible, though my heart had given a convulsive leap and was now trying to burrow out of my chest. “Well, we’ll hope that justice is served then, and I am released, won’t we?”

He made a choked sound that I thought passed for a laugh.

“To be sure. If only for the Governor’s sake.”

After that, we resumed work silently. The gilded clock behind me struck noon, and as though summoned by the sound, a servant whom I took to be the butler came in, to inquire whether the Governor would receive a delegation of the town’s citizens?

The Governor’s mouth compressed a bit, but he nodded in resignation, and a group of six or seven men came in, all attired in their best coats, but plainly tradesmen, rather than merchants or lawyers. None I recognized, thank God.

“We have come, sir,” said one, who introduced himself as George Herbert, “to ask the meaning of this movement of the cannon.”

Webb, sitting next to me, stiffened a little, but the Governor seemed to have been prepared for this.

“The cannon?” he said with every evidence of innocent surprise. “Why—the mountings are being repaired. We shall fire a royal salute—as usual—in honor of the Queen’s birthday, later in the month. Upon inspecting the cannon in anticipation of this, though, it was discovered that the wood of the caissons had rotted away in spots. Firing the cannon is of course impossible until repairs shall be effected. Would you wish to inspect the mountings for yourself, sir?”

He half-rose from his seat as he said this, as though personally to escort them outside, but spoke with such a tinge of irony to his courtesy that they flushed and muttered refusals.

There was a bit more back and forth, in the name of courtesy, but the delegation then left, exhibiting only marginally less suspicion than that with which they’d come in. Webb closed his eyes and exhaled audibly, as the door closed behind them.

“God damn them,” said the Governor very softly. I didn’t think he meant it to be heard, and pretended I hadn’t, busying myself with the papers and keeping my head lowered.

Webb got up and went to the window that overlooked the lawn, presumably to assure himself that the cannon were where he thought they should be. By craning a bit, I could see past him; sure enough, the six cannon had been removed from their mountings and lay on the grass, harmless logs of bronze.

From the subsequent conversation—salted with strong remarks regarding rebellious dogs who had the temerity to put the question to a Royal Governor as though he were a bootblack, by God!—I gathered that in fact, the cannon had been removed because of a very real fear that the townspeople might seize them and turn them upon the palace itself.

It dawned on me, listening to all this, that things had gone further and moved faster than I had expected. It was mid-July, but of 1775—nearly a year before a larger and more forceful version of the Mecklenberg Declaration would flower into an official declaration of independence for the united colonies. And yet here was a Royal Governor, in obvious fear of open revolt.

If what we had seen on our journey south from the Ridge had not been enough to convince me that war was now upon us, a day spent with Governor Martin left no doubt.

I did go up in the afternoon—accompanied by the watchful Webb, alas—to check my patient, and to make inquiries regarding anyone else who might be ill. Mrs. Martin was torpid and low in spirits, complaining of the heat and the pestilential, wretched climate, missing her daughters, and suffering severely from a lack of personal service, having been obliged to brush her own hair in the absence of Dilman, who had vanished. She was, however, in good health, as I was able to report to the Governor, who asked me of it upon my return.

“Would she stand a journey, do you think?” he asked, frowning a bit.

I considered for a moment, then nodded.

“I think so. She’s a bit wobbly, still, from the digestive upset—but she should be quite well again by tomorrow. I see no difficulties with the pregnancy—tell me, had she any trouble with previous confinements?”

The Governor’s face flushed rosily at that, but he shook his head.

“I thank you, Mrs. Fraser,” he said with a slight inclination of the head. “You will excuse me, George—I must go and speak to Betsy.”

“Is he thinking of sending his wife away?” I asked Webb, in the wake of the Governor’s departure. Despite the heat, a small qualm of uneasiness stirred beneath my skin.

For once, Webb seemed quite human; he was frowning after the Governor, and nodded absently.

“He has family in New York and New Jersey. She’ll be safe there, with the girls. Her three daughters,” he explained, catching my eye.

“Three? She said she’d had six—ah.” I stopped abruptly. She said she had borne six children, not that she had six living children.

“They have lost three small sons to the fevers here,” Webb said, still looking after his friend. He shook his head, sighing. “It hasn’t been a fortunate place for them.”

He seemed then to recover himself, and the man disappeared back behind the mask of the chilly bureaucrat. He handed me another sheaf of papers, and went out, not bothering to bow.

93

IN WHICH I IMPERSONATE

A LADY

I ATE SUPPER ALONE IN MY ROOM; the cook seemed still to be functioning, at least, though the atmosphere of disorder in the house was a palpable thing. I could feel the uneasiness, bordering on panic—and had the thought that it wasn’t fear of fever or ague that had caused the servants to leave, but more likely that sense of self-preservation that causes rats to flee a sinking ship.

From my tiny window, I could see a small portion of the town, apparently serene in the gathering twilight. The light was very different here from that in the mountains—a flat, dimensionless light that limned the houses and the fishing boats in the harbor with a hard-edged clarity, but faded into a haze that hid the farther shore completely, so that I looked beyond the immediate prospect into featureless infinity.

I shook off the notion, and took from my pocket the ink, quill, and paper I had abstracted from the library earlier. I had no idea whether or how I might get a note out of the palace—but I did have a little money, still, and if the opportunity offered . . .

I wrote quickly to Fergus and Marsali, telling them briefly what had happened, urging Fergus to make inquiries for Jamie in Brunswick and Wilmington.

I thought myself that if Jamie was alive, that he was most likely in the Wilmington gaol. Brunswick was a tiny settlement, dominated by the looming presence of the log-built Fort Johnston, but the fort was a militia garrison; there would be no good reason to take Jamie there—though if they had . . . the fort was under the command of a Captain Collet, a Swiss emigrant who knew him. At least he would be safe there.

Who else did he know? He had a good many acquaintances on the coast, from the days of the Regulation. John Ashe, for one; they had marched side by side to Alamance, and Ashe’s company had camped next to ours every night; we had entertained him at our campfire many times. And Ashe was from Wilmington.

I had just finished a brief plea to John Ashe, when I heard footsteps coming down the hallway toward my room. I folded it hastily, not worrying about smearing, and thrust it with the other note into my pocket. There was no time to do anything with the contraband ink and paper, save push it under the bed.

It was Webb, of course, my customary jailer. Evidently, I was now considered the general dogsbody of the establishment; I was escorted to Mrs. Martin’s room and desired to pack her things.

I might have expected complaint or hysteria, but in fact, she was not only dressed but pale-faced and composed, directing and even assisting the process with a sense of clear-minded order.

The reason for her self-possession was the Governor, who came in midway through the packing, his face drawn with worry. She went at once to him, and put her hands affectionately on his shoulders.

“Poor Jo,” she said softly. “Have you had any supper?”

“No. It doesn’t matter. I’ll have a bite later.” He kissed her briefly on the forehead, his look of worry lightening a little as he looked at her. “You’re quite well now, Betsy? You’re sure of it?” I realized suddenly that he was Irish—Anglo-Irish, at least; he had no hint of an accent, but his unguarded speech held a faint lilt.

“Entirely recovered,” she assured him. She took his hand and pressed it to her bulge, smiling. “See how he kicks?”

He smiled back, raised her hand to his lips, and kissed it.

“I’ll miss you, darling,” she said very softly. “You will take very great care?”

He blinked rapidly, and looked down, swallowing.

“Of course,” he said gruffly. “Dear Betsy. You know I could not bear to part with you, unless—”

“I do know. That’s why I fear so greatly for you. I—” At this point, she looked up, and realized suddenly that I was there. “Mrs. Fraser,” she said in quite a different tone. “Go down to the kitchen, please, and have a tray prepared for the Governor. You may take it to the library.”

I bobbed slightly, and went. Was this the chance I had been waiting for?

The halls and stairway were deserted, lit only by flickering tin sconces—burning fish oil, by the smell. The brick-walled kitchen was, course, in the basement, and the eerie silence in what should ordinarily be a hive of activity made the unlighted kitchen stairway seem like the descent into a dungeon.

There was no light in the kitchen now save the hearth fire, burning low—but it was burning, three servants clustered near it despite the smothering heat. They turned at my footsteps, startled and faceless in silhouette. With steam rising from the cauldron behind them, I had the momentary delusion that I was facing Macbeth’s three witches, met in dreadful prophecy.

“Double, double, toil and trouble,” I said pleasantly, though my heart beat a little faster as I approached them. “Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.”

“Toil and trouble, that be right,” said a soft female voice, and laughed. Closer now, I could see that they had appeared faceless in the shadows because they were all black; slaves, likely, and thus unable to flee the house.

Unable also to carry a message for me. Still, it never hurt to be friendly, and I smiled at them.

They smiled shyly back, looking at me with curiosity. I had not seen any of them before—nor they me, though “downstairs” being what it was, I thought it likely they knew who I was.

“Governor be sendin’ his lady away?” asked the one who had laughed, moving to fetch down a tray from a shelf in response to my request for something light.

“Yes,” I said. I realized the value of gossip as currency, and related everything that I decently could, as the three of them moved efficiently about, dark as shadows, their darting hands slicing, spreading, arranging.

Molly, the cook, shook her head, her white cap like a sunset cloud in the fire’s glow.

“Bad times, bad times,” she said, clicking her tongue, and the other two murmured assent. I thought, from their attitude, that they liked the Governor—but then, as slaves, their fate was inextricably linked with his, regardless of their feelings.

It occurred to me, as we chatted, that even if they could not reasonably flee the house altogether, they might at least leave the premises now and again; someone had to do the marketing, and there seemed to be no one else left. In fact, this proved to be the case; Sukie, the one who had laughed, went out to buy fish and fresh vegetables in the mornings, and tactfully approached, was not averse to delivering my notes to the printshop—she said she knew where it was, the place with all the books in the window—for a small consideration.

She tucked away the paper and money in her bosom, giving me a knowing look, and winked. God knew what she thought it was, but I winked back, and hefting the loaded tray, made my way back up into the fishy-smelling realms of light.

I found the Governor alone in the library, burning papers. He nodded absently at the tray I set on the desk, but did not touch it. I wasn’t sure what to do, and after a moment’s awkward standing about, sat down at my accustomed place.

The Governor thrust a final sheaf of documents into the fire, then stood looking bleakly after them, as they blackened and curled. The room had cooled a little, with the setting sun, but the windows were tightly shut—of course—and rivulets of condensing moisture rolled down the ornamental panes of glass. Blotting a similar condensation from my cheeks and nose, I got up and threw open the window closest to me, drawing in a deep gulp of the evening air, cloyingly warm, but fresh, and sweet with honeysuckle and roses from the garden, undercut with dankness from the distant shore.

Woodsmoke, too; there were fires burning outside. The soldiers who guarded the palace had watch fires burning, evenly spaced around the perimeter of the grounds. Well, that would help with the mosquitoes—and we would not be completely surprised, if an attack should come.

The Governor came to stand behind me. I expected him to tell me to shut the window, but he merely stood, looking out across his lawns and the long, graveled drive. The moon had risen, and the dismounted cannon were dimly visible, lying in the shadows like dead men in a row.

After a moment, the Governor moved back to his desk, and calling me over, handed me a sheaf of official correspondence for copying, another for sorting and filing. He left the window open; I thought that he wished to hear, if anything should happen.

I wondered where the omnipresent Webb was. There was no sound from elsewhere in the Palace; presumably Mrs. Martin had finished her packing alone, and gone to bed.

We worked on, through the intermittent chiming of the clock, the Governor getting up now and then to commit another batch of papers to the fire, taking my copies and bundling them into large leather folders that he bound with tape, stacking them on his desk. He had taken off his wig; his hair was brown, short but curly—rather like my own had been, after the fever. Now and then he paused, head turned, listening.

I had faced a mob, and knew what he was listening for. I didn’t know what to hope for, at this point, or to fear. And so I worked on, welcoming the work for the numbing distraction it was, though my hand had grown desperately cramped, and I had to pause every few moments to rub it.

The Governor was writing now; he shifted in his chair, grimacing with discomfort in spite of the cushion. Mrs. Martin had told me that he suffered from a fistula. I doubted very much that he’d let me treat it.

He eased himself onto one buttock, and rubbed a hand down his face. It was late, and he was plainly tired, as well as uncomfortable. I was tired, too, stifling yawns that threatened to dislocate my jaw and left my eyes watering. He kept doggedly working, though, with occasional glances at the door. Who was he expecting?

The window at my back was still open, and the soft air caressed me, warm as blood, but moving enough to stir the wisps of hair on my neck and make the candle flame waver wildly. It bent to one side and flickered, as though it would go out, and the Governor reached quickly to shelter it with a cupped hand.

The breeze passed and the air fell still again, save for the sound of crickets outside. The Governor’s attention seemed focused on the paper before him, but suddenly his head turned sharply, as though he had seen something dart past the open door.

He looked for a moment, then blinked, rubbed his eyes, and returned his attention to the paper. But he couldn’t keep it there. He glanced again at the empty doorway—I couldn’t help looking, too—then back, blinking.

“Did you . . . see someone pass, Mrs. Fraser?” he asked.

“No, sir,” I said, nobly swallowing a yawn.

“Ah.” Seeming somehow disappointed, he took up his quill, but didn’t write anything, just held it between his fingers, as though he had forgotten it was there.

“Were you expecting anyone, Your Excellency?” I asked politely, and his head jerked up, surprised to be directly addressed.

“Oh. No. That is . . .” His voice died away as he glanced once more at the doorway that led to the back of the house.

“My son,” he said. “Our darling Sam. He—died here, you know—late last year. Only eight years old. Sometimes . . . sometimes I think I see him,” he ended quietly, and bent his head once more over his paper, lips pressed tight.

I moved impulsively, meaning to touch his hand, but his tight-lipped air prevented me.

“I am sorry,” I said quietly, instead. He didn’t speak, but gave one quick, short nod of acknowledgment, not raising his head. His lips tightened further, and he went back to his writing, as did I.

A little later, the clock struck the hour, then two. It had a soft, sweet chime, and the Governor stopped to listen, a distant look in his eyes.

“So late,” he said, as the last chime died away. “I have kept you intolerably late, Mrs. Fraser. Forgive me.” He motioned to me to leave the papers I was working on, and I rose, stiff and aching from sitting so long.

I shook my skirts into some order and turned to go, realizing only then that he had made no move to put away his ink and quills.

“You should go to bed, too, you know,” I said to him, turning and pausing at the door.

The palace was still. Even the crickets had ceased, and only the soft snore of a sleeping soldier in the hall disturbed the quiet.

“Yes,” he said, and gave me a small, tired smile. “Soon.” He shifted his weight to the other buttock, and picked up his quill, bending his head once more over the papers.

NO ONE WOKE ME in the morning, and the sun was well up when I stirred on my own. Listening to the silence, I had a momentary fear that everyone had decamped in the night, leaving me locked in to starve. I rose hastily, though, and looked out. The red-coated soldiers were still patrolling the grounds, just as usual. I could see small groups of citizens outside the perimeter, mostly strolling past in twos or threes, but sometimes stopping to stare at the palace.

Then I began to hear small thumps and homely noises on the floor below, and felt relieved; I was not entirely abandoned. I was, however, extremely hungry by the time the butler came to let me out.

He brought me to Mrs. Martin’s bedchamber, but to my surprise it was empty. He left me there, and within a few moments, Merilee, one of the kitchen slaves, came in, looking apprehensive at being in this unfamiliar part of the house.

“Whatever is going on?” I asked her. “Where is Mrs. Martin, do you know?”

“Well, I know that,” she said, in a dubious tone indicating that it was the only thing she did know for certain. “She lef’ just afore dawn this mornin’. That Mr. Webb, he took her away, secret-like, in a wagon with her boxes.”

I nodded, perplexed. It was reasonable that she should have left quietly; I imagined the Governor didn’t want to give any indication that he felt threatened, for fear of provoking exactly the violence he feared.

“But if Mrs. Martin is gone,” I said, “why am I here? Why are you here?”

“Oh. Well, I know that, too,” Merilee said, gaining a bit of confidence. “I s’posed to hep you dress, ma’am.”

“But I don’t need any . . .” I began, and then saw the garments laid out on the bed: one of Mrs. Martin’s day gowns, a pretty printed floral cotton, done in the newly popular “polonaise” fashion, complete with voluminous petticoats, silk stockings, and a large straw hat to shade the face.

Evidently, I was meant to impersonate the Governor’s wife. There was no real point in protesting; I could hear the Governor and the butler talking in the hall, and after all—if it got me out of the palace, so much the better.

I was only two or three inches taller than Mrs. Martin, and my lack of a bulge made the gown hang lower. There was no hope of my fitting into any of her shoes, but my own were not completely disreputable, in spite of all my adventures since leaving home. Merilee cleaned them and rubbed them with a bit of grease to make the leather shine; they were at least not so crude as to draw attention immediately.

With the broad-brimmed hat slanting forward to hide my face, and my hair twisted up and firmly pinned under a cap beneath it, I was probably a reasonable approximation, at least to people who did not know Mrs. Martin well. The Governor frowned when he saw me, and walked slowly round me, tugging here and there to adjust the fit, but then nodded, and with a small bow, offered me his arm.

“Your servant, mum,” he said politely. And with me slumping slightly to disguise my height, we went out the front door, to find the Governor’s carriage waiting in the drive.

94

ABSQUATULATION

JAMIE FRASER observed the quantity and quality of books in the window of the printshop—F. Fraser, Proprietor—and allowed himself a momentary sense of pride in Fergus; the establishment, though small, was apparently thriving. Time, however, was pressing, and he pushed through the door without stopping to read the titles.

A small bell over the door rang at his entrance, and Germain popped up behind the counter like an ink-smeared jack-in-the-box, emitting a whoop of joy at sight of his grandfather and his uncle Ian.

“Grandpère, Grandpère!” he shouted, then dived under the flap in the counter, clutching Jamie about the h*ps in ecstasy. He’d grown; the top of his head now reached Jamie’s lower ribs. Jamie ruffled the shiny blond hair gently, then detached Germain and told him to fetch his father.

No need; aroused by the shouting, the whole family came boiling out from the living quarters behind the shop, exclaiming, yelling, squealing, and generally carrying on like a pack of wolves, as Ian pointed out to them, Henri-Christian riding on his shoulders in red-faced triumph, clinging to his hair.

“What has happened, milord? Why are you here?” Fergus disengaged Jamie easily from the riot and drew him aside, into the alcove where the more expensive books were kept—and those not suitable for public display.

He could see from the look on Fergus’s face that some news had come down from the mountains; while surprised to see him, Fergus was not astonished, and his pleasure covered a worried mind. He explained the matter as quickly as he could, stumbling now and then over his words from haste and weariness; one of the horses had broken down some forty miles from town, and unable to find another, they had walked for two nights and a day, taking it in turns to ride, the other trotting alongside, clinging to the stirrup leathers.

Fergus listened with attention, wiping his mouth with the handkerchief he had taken from his collar; they had arrived in the middle of dinner.

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