A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 84

   

“The sheriff—that would be Mr. Tolliver,” he said. “I know him. Shall we—”

Jamie made an abrupt gesture, cutting him short.

“We went there to begin with,” he said. They had found the sheriff gone, and no one in the house save a very drunken woman with a face like a discontented bird, collapsed and snoring on the settle with a small Negro baby clutched in her arms.

He had taken the baby and thrust it into Ian’s arms, bidding him grimly to mind it while he sobered the woman enough to talk. He had then dragged her out into the yard and poured buckets of well water over her until she gasped and blinked, then dragged her dripping and stumbling back into the house, where he obliged her to drink water poured over the black, burned dregs of chicory coffee he had found in the pot. She had vomited profusely and disgustingly, but regained some vague sense of language.

“At first, all she could say was that all of the female prisoners were gone—run off or hanged.” He said nothing of the fright that had lanced through his belly at that last. He had shaken the woman thoroughly, though, demanding particulars, and eventually, after further applications of water and vile coffee, got them.

“A man came, the day before yesterday, and took her away. That was all she knew—or all she remembered. I made her tell me what she could of how he looked—it wasna Brown, nor yet Neil Forbes.”

“I see.” Fergus glanced behind him; his family were all gathered round Ian, pestering and caressing him. Marsali, though, was looking toward the alcove, worry on her face, obviously wanting to come and join the conversation, but detained by Joan, who was tugging on her skirt.

“Who would take her, I wonder?”

“Joanie, a chuisle, will ye not leave go? Help Félicité for a moment, aye?”

“But, Mama—”

“Not now. In a moment, aye?”

“I dinna ken,” Jamie said, the frustration of helplessness welling up like black bile at the back of his throat. A sudden, more horrible thought struck him. “God, d’ye suppose it might have been Stephen Bonnet?”

The woman’s slurred description had not sounded like the pirate—but she had been far from certain in it. Could Forbes have learned of his own escape, and determined simply to reverse the roles in the drama he had conceived—deport Claire forcibly to England, and try to pin the guilt of Malva Christie’s death to Jamie’s coat?

He found it hard to breathe, and had to force air into his chest. If Forbes had given Claire to Bonnet, he would slit the lawyer from wishbone to cock, rip the guts from his belly, and strangle him with them. And the same for the Irishman, once he laid hands upon him.

“Papi, Pa-pee . . .” Joan’s singsong voice penetrated dimly through the red cloud that filled his head.

“What, chérie?” Fergus lifted her with the ease of long practice, balancing her fat little bottom on his left arm, to leave his right hand free.

She put her arms round his neck and hissed something into his ear.

“Oh, did you?” he said, plainly abstracted. “Très bien. Where did you put it, chérie?”

“With the naughty-lady pictures.”

She pointed at the upper shelf, where several volumes lay, leather-bound but discreetly untitled. Glancing in the direction she indicated, Jamie saw a smudged paper sticking out from between two of the books.

Fergus clicked his tongue in displeasure, and smacked her lightly on the bottom with his good hand.

“You know you are not to climb up there!”

Jamie reached over and pulled the paper out. And felt all the blood leave his head, at sight of the familiar writing on it.

“What?” Fergus, alarmed at his appearance, set Joanie down. “Sit, milord! Run, chérie, get the smelling bottle.”

Jamie waved a hand, speechless, trying to indicate that he was all right, and succeeded at last in finding his tongue.

“She’s in the Governor’s Palace,” he said. “Christ be thanked, she’s safe.”

Seeing a stool pushed under the shelf, he pulled it out and sat on it, feeling exhaustion pulse through the quivering muscles of thigh and calf, ignoring the confusion of question and explanation, how Joanie had found the note pushed under the door—anonymous submissions to the newspaper often were delivered in this fashion, and the children knew they were to bring such things to their father’s attention. . . .

Fergus read the note, his dark eyes assuming the expression of interested intent that he always had when contemplating the abstraction of something difficult and valuable.

“Well, that is good,” he said. “We will go and fetch her. But I think first you must eat a little, milord.”

He wished to refuse, to say that there was not a moment to be lost, that he could eat nothing in any case; his wame was knotted, hurting him.

But Marsali was already hurrying the girls back to the kitchen, calling out things about hot coffee and bread, and Ian following her, Henri-Christian still wrapped lovingly about his ears, Germain yapping eagerly at his heels. And he knew that should it come to a fight, he had nothing left to fight with. Then the succulent sizzle and scent of eggs frying in butter reached him, and he was up and moving toward the back, like iron drawn by a magnet.

Over their hasty meal, various plans were offered and rejected. At length, he reluctantly accepted Fergus’s suggestion that either Fergus or Ian should go openly to the palace, asking to see Claire, saying that he was a kinsman, wishing to assure himself of her welfare.

“They have no reason to deny her presence, after all,” Fergus said, shrugging. “If we can see her, so much the better; but even if not, we will learn whether she is still there, and perhaps where she is likely to be within the palace.”

Fergus clearly wished to undertake the errand, but yielded when Ian pointed out that Fergus was widely known in New Bern, and it might be suspected that he was merely hunting scandal for the newspaper.

“For I am pained to say, milord,” Fergus said apologetically, “that the matter—the crime—is known here already. There are broadsheets . . . the usual nonsense. L’Oignon was obliged to print something regarding the matter, of course, to keep our countenance, but we did so in a most repressive fashion, mentioning only the bald facts of the matter.” His long, mobile mouth compressed briefly, in illustration of the repressive nature of his article, and Jamie smiled faintly.

“Aye, I see,” he said. He pushed back from the table, pleased to feel some strength returned to his limbs, and heartened anew by food, coffee, and the comforting knowledge of Claire’s whereabouts. “Well, then, Ian, comb your hair. Ye dinna want the Governor to think ye a savage.”

JAMIE INSISTED UPON going with Ian, despite the danger of being recognized. His nephew eyed him narrowly.

“Ye’re no going to do anything foolish, Uncle Jamie?”

“When was the last time ye kent me to do anything foolish?”

Ian gave him an old-fashioned look, held up one hand, and began to fold the fingers down, one by one.

“Oh, well, let me reckon, then . . . Simms the printer? Tarring Forbes? Roger Mac told me what ye did in Mecklenberg. And then there was—”

“Ye would have let them kill wee Fogarty?” Jamie inquired. “And if we’re mentioning fools, who was it got his arse pricked for wallowing in mortal sin with—”

“What I mean is,” Ian said severely, “ye’re no going to walk into the Governor’s Palace and try to take her by force, no matter what happens. Ye’ll wait quietly wi’ your hat on until I come back, and then we’ll see, aye?”

Jamie pulled down the brim of his hat, a floppy, weathered felt affair such as a pig farmer might wear, with his hair tucked up beneath it.

“What makes ye think I wouldn’t?” he asked, as much from curiosity as natural contention.

“The look on your face,” Ian replied briefly. “I want her back as much as you do, Uncle Jamie—well,” he amended, with a wry grin, “perhaps not quite sae much—but I mean to have her back, nonetheless. You”—he poked his uncle emphatically in the chest—“bide your time.”

And leaving Jamie standing under a heat-stricken elm, he strode purposefully toward the gates of the palace.

Jamie took several deep breaths, trying to maintain a sense of annoyance with Ian as an antidote to the anxiety that wrapped itself round his chest like a snake. As the annoyance had been purely manufactured, it evaporated like steam from a kettle, leaving the anxiety squirming and writhing.

Ian had reached the gate, and was in palaver with the guard who stood there, musket at the ready. Jamie could see the man shaking his head emphatically.

This was nonsense, he thought. The need of her was a physical thing, like the thirst of a sailor becalmed for weeks on the sea. He’d felt that need before, often, often, in their years apart. But why now? She was safe; he knew where she was—was it only the exhaustion of the past weeks and days, or perhaps the weakness of creeping age that made his bones ache, as though she had in fact been torn from his body, as God had made Eve from Adam’s rib?

Ian was arguing, making persuasive gestures toward the guard. The sound of wheels on gravel drew his attention from them; a carriage was coming down the drive, a small open conveyance with two people and a driver, drawn by a team of nice dark bays.

The guard had pushed Ian back with the barrel of his musket, gesturing him to keep away while the guard and his fellow opened the gates. The carriage rattled through without stopping, turned into the street, and came past him.

He had never seen Josiah Martin, but thought the plump, self-important-looking gentleman must surely be the— His eye caught the merest glimpse of the woman, and his heart clenched like a fist. Without an instant’s thought, he was pelting after the carriage, as hard as he could run.

In his prime, he could not have outrun a team of horses. Even so, he came within a few feet of the carriage, would have called, but had no breath, no sight, and then his foot struck a misplaced cobble and he fell headlong.

He lay stunned and breathless, vision dark and his lungs afire, hearing only the receding clatter of hooves and carriage wheels, until a strong hand seized his arm and jerked.

“We’ll avoid notice, he says,” Ian muttered, bending to get his shoulder under Jamie’s arm. “Your hat’s flown off, did ye notice that? Nay, of course not, nor the whole street staring, ye crack-brained gomerel. God, ye weigh as much as a three-year bullock!”

“Ian,” he said, and paused to gulp for breath.

“Aye?”

“Ye sound like your mother. Stop.” Another gulp of air. “And let go my arm; I can walk.”

Ian gave a snort that sounded even more like Jenny, but did stop, and did let go. Jamie picked up his fallen hat and limped toward the printshop, Ian following in urgent silence through the staring streets.

SAFELY AWAY FROM the palace, we trotted sedately through the streets of New Bern, provoking only mild interest from the citizenry, some of whom waved, a few of whom called out vaguely hostile things, most of whom simply stared. At the edge of town, the groom turned the team onto the main road, and we bowled pleasantly along, apparently bound for an outing in the countryside, an illusion bolstered by the wicker picnic hamper visible behind us.

Once past the congestion of heavy wagons, cattle, sheep, and the other traffic of commerce, though, the groom whipped up, and we were flying again.

“Where are we going?” I shouted over the noise of the team, holding on to my hat to prevent it blowing off. I had thought we were merely providing a diversion, so that no one would notice Mrs. Martin’s quiet removal until she was safely out of the colony. Evidently, though, we were not merely out for a picnic.

“Brunswick!” the Governor shouted back.

“Where?”

“Brunswick,” he repeated. He looked grim, and grimmer still as he cast a last look back toward New Bern. “God damn them,” he said, though I was sure he meant this observation only for himself. He turned round then, and settled himself, leaning slightly forward, as though to speed the carriage, and said no more.

95

THE CRUIZER

I WOKE EVERY MORNING, just before dawn. Worn out from worry and the Governor’s late hours, I slept like the dead, through all the thumps and rattlings and bell-ringings of the watch, shouts from boats nearby, occasional musket-fire from the shore, and the whine of the offshore wind as it passed through the rigging. But in that moment before the light, the silence woke me.

Today? was the single thought in my mind, and I seemed to hang bodiless for a moment, just above my pallet beneath the forecastle. Then I drew breath, heard my heart beating, and felt the gentle heave of the deck beneath me. Would turn my face to the shore, watching, as the light began to touch the waves and reach toward land. We had first gone to Fort Johnston, but had stayed there barely long enough for the Governor to meet with local Loyalists who had assured him how unsafe it was, before retreating further.

We had been aboard His Majesty’s sloop Cruizer for nearly a week, anchored off Brunswick. Lacking any troops save the Marines aboard the sloop, Governor Martin was unable to seize back control of his colony, and was reduced to writing frenzied letters, attempting to keep up some semblance of a government in exile.

Lacking anyone else to fill the office, I remained in my role as ad hoc secretary, though I had moved up from mere copyist to amanuensis, taking down some letters by dictation when Martin grew too tired to write himself. And cut off from land and information alike, I spent every spare moment watching the shore.

Today, a boat was coming, out of the fading dark.

One of the watch hailed it, and an answering “halloo” came up, in tones of such agitation that I sat up abruptly, groping for my stays.

Today, there would be news.

The messenger was already in the Governor’s cabin, and one of the Marines barred my way—but the door was open, and the man’s voice clearly audible.

“Ashe’s done it, sir, he’s moving against the fort!”

“Well, God damn him for a treasonous dog!”

There was a sound of footsteps, and the Marine stepped hastily out of the way, just in time to avoid the Governor, who came popping out of his cabin like a jack out of the box, still attired in a billowing nightshirt and minus his wig. He seized the ladder and scampered up it like a monkey, affording me an unwanted view from below of his chubby bare buttocks. The Marine caught my eye and quickly averted his own gaze.

“What are they doing? Do you see them?”

“Not yet.” The messenger, a middle-aged man in the dress of a farmer, had followed the Governor up the ladder; their voices floated down from the rail.

“Colonel Ashe ordered all the ships in Wilmington Harbor to take on troops yesterday and float them down to Brunswick. They were mustering just outside the town this morning; I heard the roll calls whilst I was doing the morning milking—nigh onto five hundred men, they must have. When I saw that, sir, I slipped away down to the shore and found a boat. Thought you ought to know, Your Excellence.” The man’s voice had lost its agitation now, and taken on a rather self-righteous tone.

“Oh, yes? And what do you expect me to do about it?” The Governor sounded distinctly cranky.

“How should I know?” said the messenger, replying in like vein. “I ain’t the Governor, now, am I?”

The Governor’s response to this was drowned out by the striking of the ship’s bell. As it died away, he strode past the companionway, and looking down, saw me below.

“Oh, Mrs. Fraser. Will you fetch me some tea from the galley?”

I hadn’t much choice, though I would have preferred to stay and eavesdrop. The galley fire had been banked for the night in its small iron pot, and the cook was still abed. By the time I had poked up the fire, boiled water, brewed a pot of tea, and assembled a tray with teapot, cup, saucer, milk, and toast, butter, biscuits, and jam, the Governor’s informant had gone; I saw his boat heading for the shore, a dark arrowhead against the slowly brightening surface of the sea.

I paused for a moment on deck and rested my tea tray on the rail, looking inland. It was just light now, and Fort Johnston was visible, a blocky log building that stood exposed on top of a low rise, surrounded by a cluster of houses and outbuildings. There was a fair amount of activity around it; men were coming and going like a trail of ants. Nothing that looked like an imminent invasion, though. Either the commander, Captain Collet, had decided to evacuate—or Ashe’s men had not yet begun their march from Brunswick.

Had John Ashe received my message? If he had . . . would he have acted? It wouldn’t have been a popular thing to do; I couldn’t blame him if he had decided that he simply couldn’t afford to be seen aiding a man widely suspected of being a Loyalist—let alone one accused of such a hideous crime.

He might have, though. With the Governor marooned at sea, the Council disbanded, and the court system evaporated, there was no effective law in the colony now—save for the militias. If Ashe chose to storm the Wilmington jail and remove Jamie, he would have faced precious little opposition.

And if he had . . . if Jamie were free, he would be looking for me. And surely he would hear quickly where I was. If John Ashe came to Brunswick and Jamie were free, he would surely come with Ashe’s men. I looked toward shore, seeking movement, but saw only a boy driving a cow desultorily along the road to Brunswick. But the shadows of the night were still cold around my feet; it was barely dawn.

I took a deep breath, and noticed the aromatic scent of the tea, mixed with the shore’s morning breath—the smell of tide flats and piney scrub. I hadn’t drunk tea in months, if not years. Thoughtfully, I poured a cup, and sipped it slowly, watching the shore.

WHEN I ARRIVED IN the surgeon’s cabin, which the Governor had taken for his office, he was dressed, and alone.

“Mrs. Fraser.” He nodded briefly to me, scarcely looking up. “I am obliged. Will you write, please?”

He had been writing himself, already; quills and sand and blotter were scattered about the desk, and the inkwell stood open. I picked out a decent quill and a sheet of paper, and began to write as per his dictation, with a sense of growing curiosity.

The note—dictated between bites of toast—was to a General Hugh MacDonald, and referred to the General’s safe arrival upon the mainland with a Colonel McLeod. Receipt of the General’s report was acknowledged, and request made for continuing information. Mention was also made of the Governor’s request for support—which I knew about—and assurances he had received regarding the arrival of that support, which I didn’t.

“Enclosure, a letter of credit—no, wait.” The Governor darted a look in the direction of the shore—to no particular avail, as the surgeon’s cabin boasted no porthole—and scowled in concentration. Evidently, it had occurred to him that in light of recent events, a letter of credit issued by the Governor’s office was possibly worth less than one of Mrs. Ferguson’s forgeries.

“Enclosure, twenty shillings,” he amended with a sigh. “If you will make the fair copy at once, Mrs. Fraser? These, you may do at your leisure.” He pushed across an untidy stack of notes, done in his own crabbed hand.

He got up then, groaning as he stretched, and went up, no doubt to peer over the railing at the fort again.

I made the copy, sanded it, and set it aside, wondering who on earth this MacDonald was, and what he was doing? Unless Major MacDonald had undergone a change of name and an extraordinary promotion of late, it couldn’t be he. And from the tone of the Governor’s remarks, it appeared that General MacDonald and his friend McLeod were traveling alone—and on some particular mission.

I flipped quickly through the waiting stack of notes, but saw nothing else of interest; just the usual administrative trivia. The Governor had left his writing desk on the table, but it was closed. I debated trying to pick the lock and rummage through his private correspondence, but there were too many people about: seamen, Marines, ship’s boys, visitors—the place was seething.

There was a sense of nervous tension aboard, as well. I’d noticed many times before how a sense of danger communicates itself among people in a confined setting: hospital emergency room, surgical suite, train car, ship; urgency flashes from one person to the next without speech, like the impulse down a neuron’s axon to the dendrites of another. I didn’t know whether anyone beyond the Governor and myself knew about John Ashe’s movements yet—but the Cruizer knew that something was up.

The sense of nervous anticipation was affecting me, too. I was fidgeting, toe tapping absently, fingers moving restlessly up and down the shaft of the quill, unable to concentrate enough to write with it.

I stood up, with no idea what I meant to do; only the fixed notion that I would suffocate with impatience if I stayed below any longer.

On the shelf beside the door to the cabin stood the usual half-tidy clutter of shipboard, jammed behind a rail: a candlestick, extra candles, a tinderbox, a broken pipe, a bottle with a twist of flax stopping it, a bit of wood that someone had tried to carve and made a mess of. And a box.

The Cruizer had no surgeon aboard. And surgeons tended to take their personal implements with them, unless they died. This must be a kit belonging to the ship itself.

I glanced out the door; there were voices nearby, but no one in sight. I hastily flipped open the box, wrinkling my nose at the scent of dried blood and stale tobacco. There wasn’t much there, and what there was was thrown in higgledy-piggledy, rusted, crusted, and of little use. A tin of Blue Pills, so labeled, and a bottle, not labeled, but recognizable, of black draught—laudanum, that is. A dried-up sponge and a sticky cloth stained with something yellow. And the one thing certain to be in any surgeon’s kit of the times—blades.

There were footsteps coming down the companionway, and I heard the Governor’s voice, talking to someone. Without pausing to consider the wisdom of my conduct, I grabbed a small jointing knife and thrust it down the front of my stays.

I slammed shut the lid of the box. There was no time to sit down again, though, before the Governor arrived, with another visitor in tow.

My heart was hammering in my throat. I pressed my palms, damp with sweat, against my skirt, and nodded to the new arrival, who was regarding me, open-mouthed, behind the Governor.

“Major MacDonald,” I said, hoping that my voice wouldn’t tremble. “Fancy meeting you here!”

MACDONALD’S MOUTH snapped shut and he drew himself more firmly upright.

“Mrs. Fraser,” he said, bowing warily. “Your servant, mum.”

“You know her?” Governor Martin glanced from MacDonald to me and back, frowning.

“We’ve met,” I said, nodding politely. It had occurred to me that it might not profit either of us for the Governor to think there was some connection between us—if indeed there was one.

The same thought had clearly struck MacDonald; his face betrayed nothing beyond faint courtesy, though I could see the thoughts darting to and fro behind his eyes like a swarm of gnats. I was entertaining a similar swarm, myself—and knowing that my own face was naturally revealing, I cast down my eyes demurely, and murmuring an excuse about refreshment, made off toward the galley.

I threaded my way through clumps of seamen and Marines, mechanically acknowledging their salutes, mind working furiously.

How? How was I going to speak to MacDonald alone? I had to find out what he knew about Jamie—if anything. Would he tell me, if he did know anything? But yes, I thought, he would; soldier he might be, but MacDonald was also a confirmed gossip—and he was plainly dying of curiosity at the sight of me.

The cook, a chubby young free black named Tinsdale, who wore his hair in three stubby braids that stuck out of his head like the horns of a triceratops, was at work in the galley, dreamily toasting bread over the fire.

“Oh, hullo,” he said amiably, seeing me. He waved the toasting fork. “Want a bit of toast, Mrs. Fraser? Or is it the hot water, again?”

“Love some toast,” I said, seized by inspiration. “But the Governor has company; he wants coffee sent. And if you have a few of those nice almond biscuits to go with it . . .”

Armed with a loaded coffee tray, I made my way toward the surgeon’s cabin a few minutes later, heart pounding. The door was open for air; evidently it wasn’t a secret meeting.

They were huddled together over the small desk, the Governor frowning at a wad of papers, these clearly having traveled some distance in MacDonald’s dispatch case, judging from the creases and stains upon them. They appeared to be letters, written in a variety of hands and inks.

“Oh, coffee,” the Governor said, looking up. He seemed vaguely pleased, plainly not recalling that he hadn’t ordered any. “Splendid. Thank you, Mrs. Fraser.”

MacDonald hastily picked up the papers, making room for me to set the tray down on the desk. The Governor had one in his hand; he kept hold of this, and I caught a quick glimpse of it as I bent to place the tray in front of him. It was a list of some sort—names on one side, numbers beside them.

I managed to knock a spoon to the floor, enabling a better look as I stooped for it. H. Bethune, Cook’s Creek, 14. Jno. McManus, Boone, 3. F. Campbell, Campbelton, 24?

I darted a look at MacDonald, who had his eyes fixed on me. I dropped the spoon on the desk, then took a hasty step back, so that I stood directly behind the Governor. I pointed a finger at MacDonald, then in rapid succession clutched my throat, tongue protruding, grabbed my stomach with crossed forearms, then jabbed the finger again at him, then at myself, all the while giving him a monitory stare.

MacDonald viewed this pantomime with subdued fascination, but—with a veiled glance at the Governor, who was stirring his coffee with one hand, frowning at the paper he held in the other—gave me a tiny nod.

“How many can you be quite sure of?” the Governor was saying, as I curtsied and backed out.

“Oh, at least five hundred men, sir, even now,” MacDonald replied confidently. “A great many more to come, as word spreads. Ye should see the enthusiasm with which the General has been received so far! I cannot speak for the Germans, of course, but depend upon it, sir, we shall have all the Highlanders of the backcountry, and not a few of the Scotch–Irish, too.”

“God knows I hope you are right,” the Governor said, sounding hopeful, but still dubious. “Where is the General now?”

I would have liked to hear the answer to that—and a good many other things—but the drum was beating overhead for mess, and thundering feet were already pounding down the decks and companionways. I couldn’t lurk about eavesdropping in plain sight of the mess, so was obliged to go back up top, hoping that MacDonald had indeed got my message.

The captain of the Cruizer was standing by the rail, his first mate beside him, both scanning the shore with their telescopes.

“Is anything happening?” I could see more activity near the fort, people coming and going—but the shore road was still empty.

“Can’t say, ma’am.” Captain Follard shook his head, then lowered the telescope and shut it, reluctantly, as though afraid something might happen if he didn’t keep his eyes fixed on the shore. The first mate didn’t move, still squinting fixedly toward the fort on its bluff.

I remained there by his side, staring silently toward the shore. The tide shifted; I had been on the ship long enough to feel it, a barely perceptible pause, the sea taking breath as the invisible moon yielded its pull.

There is a tide in the affairs of men. . . . Surely Shakespeare had stood upon a deck, at least once, and felt that same faint shift, deep in the flesh. A professor had told me once, in medical school, that the Polynesian seafarers dared their vast journeys through the trackless sea because they had learned to sense the currents of the ocean, the shifts of wind and tide, registering these changes with that most delicate of instruments—their testicles.

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