A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 85

   

It didn’t take a scrotum to feel the currents that were swirling round us now, I reflected, with a sideways glance at the first mate’s securely fastened white breeches. I could feel them in the pit of my stomach, in the damp of my palms, in the tenseness of the muscles at the back of my neck. The mate had lowered his telescope, but still looked toward the shore, almost absently, his hands resting on the rail.

It occurred to me suddenly that if something drastic were to happen on land, the Cruizer would at once lift sail and head out to sea, carrying the Governor to safety—and me farther from Jamie. Where on earth might we end up? Charlestown? Boston? Either was as likely. And no one on that seething shore would have any notion where we had gone.

I’d met displaced persons during the war—my war. Driven or taken from their homes, their families scattered, their cities destroyed, they thronged refugee camps, stood in lines besieging embassies and aid stations, asking, always asking for the names of the vanished, describing the faces of the loved and lost, grasping at any scrap of information that might lead them back to whatever might be left. Or, failing that, preserve for a moment longer what they had once been.

The day was warm, even on the water, and my clothes clung to me with humid damp, but my muscles convulsed and my hands on the rail shook with sudden chill.

I might have seen them all for the last time, not knowing it: Jamie, Bree, Jemmy, Roger, Ian. That’s how it happened: I had not even said goodbye to Frank, had had no faintest inkling when he left that last night that I would never see him alive again. What if—

But no, I thought, steadying myself with a tighter grip on the wooden rail. We would find each other again. We had a place to return to. Home. And if I remained alive—as I most firmly intended to do—I would go back home.

The mate had shut his telescope and left; I hadn’t noticed his departure, absorbed in morbid thoughts, and was quite startled when Major MacDonald hove to alongside me.

“Too bad the Cruizer has nay long-range guns,” he said with a nod at the fort. “’Twould put a crimp in the plans o’ those wee heathen, eh?”

“Whatever those plans might be,” I replied. “And speaking of plans—”

“I’ve a kind of a griping in the wame,” he interrupted blandly. “The Governor suggested that ye might possibly have some sort of medicine to soothe it.”

“Did he indeed?” I said. “Well, come down to the galley; I’ll brew you a cup of something that will set you right, I expect.”

“DID YE KEN, he thought ye were a forger?” MacDonald, hands wrapped around a mug of tea, jerked his head in the direction of the main cabin. The Governor was nowhere in sight, and the cabin’s door closed.

“I did, yes. Does he know better now?” I asked with a sense of resignation.

“Well, aye.” MacDonald looked apologetic. “I supposed he knew already, or I wouldna have said. Though if I hadn’t,” he added, “he would have kent it sooner or later. The story’s spread all the way to Edenton by now, and the broadsheets . . .”

I flapped a hand, dismissing this.

“Have you seen Jamie?”

“I have not.” He glanced at me, curiosity warring with wariness. “I’d heard . . . aye, well, I’ve heard a great many things, and all different. But the meat of the matter is that ye’ve both been arrested, aye? For the murder of Miss Christie.”

I nodded briefly. I wondered whether one day I would grow used to that word. The sound of it was still like a punch in the stomach, short and brutal.

“Need I tell you that there is no truth to it?” I said bluntly.

“Not the slightest need, mum,” he assured me, with a fair assumption of confidence. But I sensed the hesitation in him, and saw the sideways glance, curious and somehow avid. Perhaps one day I’d get used to that, too.

My hands were cold; I wrapped them round my own mug, taking what comfort I could in its heat.

“I need to get word to my husband,” I said. “Do you know where he is?”

MacDonald’s pale blue eyes were fixed on my face, his own showing no more now than courteous attention.

“No, mum. But you do, I assume?”

I gave him a sharp look.

“Don’t be coy,” I advised him shortly. “You know as well as I do what’s going on on shore—probably much better.”

“Coy.” His thin lips pursed in brief amusement. “I dinna believe anyone’s called me that before. Aye, I know. And so?”

“I think that he may be in Wilmington. I tried to send word to John Ashe, and asked him to get Jamie out of the gaol in Wilmington, if possible—if he was there—and to tell him where I was. But I don’t know—” I waved a hand in frustration toward the shore.

He nodded, native caution at odds with his obvious desire to ask me for the gory details of Malva’s death.

“I shall be going back through Wilmington. I’ll make such inquiries as may be possible. If I find Mr. Fraser—shall I tell him anything, beyond your present situation?”

I hesitated, thinking. I had been holding a constant conversation with Jamie, ever since they took him away from me. But none of what I said to him in the wide black nights or the lonely dawns seemed appropriate to confide to MacDonald. And yet . . . I couldn’t forgo the opportunity; God knew when I might have another.

“Tell him that I love him,” I said softly, my eyes on the tabletop. “I always will.”

MacDonald made a small sound that made me look up at him.

“Even though he—” he began, then stopped himself.

“He didn’t kill her,” I said sharply. “And neither did I. I told you so.”

“Of course not,” he said hurriedly. “No one could imagine . . . I only meant . . . but of course, a man’s but a man, and . . . mmphm.” He broke off and looked away, the color high in his face.

“He didn’t do that, either,” I said through my teeth.

There was a marked silence, during which we avoided each other’s gaze.

“Is General MacDonald a kinsman of yours?” I asked abruptly, needing either to change the course of the conversation or to leave.

The Major glanced up, surprised—and relieved.

“Aye, a distant cousin. The Governor’s mentioned him?”

“Yes,” I said. It was the truth, after all; Martin simply hadn’t mentioned the General to me. “You’re, um, assisting him, are you? It sounded as though you’ve been having some success.”

Relieved to have escaped the social awkwardness of dealing with the question as to whether I were a murderess, and Jamie only a philanderer, or he a murderer and I his scorned and deluded dupe, MacDonald was only too eager to take the offered bait.

“Great success, indeed,” he said heartily. “I’ve gathered pledges from many of the most prominent men in the colony; they stand ready to do the Governor’s bidding at the slightest word!”

Jno. McManus, Boone, 3. Prominent men. I happened to know Jonathan McManus, whose gangrenous toes I had removed the winter before. He likely was the most prominent man in Boone, if by that, MacDonald meant that the other twenty inhabitants all knew him for a drunkard and a thief. It was also probably true that he had three men who would go to fight with him if called: his one-legged brother and his two feeble-minded sons. I took a sip of tea to hide my expression. Still, MacDonald had Farquard Campbell on his list; had Farquard really made a formal commitment?

“I gather the General is not presently anywhere near Brunswick, though,” I said, “given the, er, present circumstances?” If he was, the Governor would be much less nervous than he was.

MacDonald shook his head.

“No. But he is not ready to muster his forces yet; he and McLeod do but discover the readiness of the Highlanders to rise. They will not call muster until the ships come.”

“Ships?” I blurted. “What ships?”

He knew he oughtn’t to speak further, but couldn’t resist. I saw it in his eyes; after all, what danger could there be in telling me?

“The Governor has asked for aid from the Crown in subduing the factionalism and unrest that runs rampant in the colony. And has received assurances that it will be forthcoming—should he be able to raise enough support on the ground to reinforce the government troops who will arrive by ship.

“That is the plan, ye see,” he went on, warming to it. “We are notified”—Oh, “we” indeed, I thought—“that my Lord Cornwallis begins to gather troops in Ireland, who will take ship shortly. They should arrive in the early autumn, and join wi’ the General’s militia. Between Cornwallis on the coast and the General comin’ doon frae the hills—” He closed thumb and fingers in a pinching movement. “They’ll crush the Whiggish whoresons like a pack o’ lice!”

“Will they?” I said, endeavoring to sound impressed. Possibly they would; I had no idea, nor did I much care, being in no position to see far beyond the present moment. If I ever got off this frigging boat and out of the shadow of a noose, I’d worry about it.

The sound of the main cabin’s door opening made me look up. The Governor was closing it behind him. Turning, he saw us, and came to inquire as to MacDonald’s presumed indisposition.

“Oh, I am a great deal better,” the Major assured him, hand pressed to the waistcoat of his uniform. He belched in illustration. “Mrs. Fraser is a capital hand at such things. Capital!”

“Oh, good,” Martin said. He seemed a trifle less harassed than he had earlier. “You will be wanting to go back, then.” He signaled to the Marine standing at the foot of the companionway, who knuckled his forehead in acknowledgment and disappeared up the ladder.

“The boat will be ready for you in a few minutes’ time.” With a nod at MacDonald’s half-drunk tea, and a punctilious bow to me, the Governor turned and went into the surgeon’s cabin, where I could see him standing beside the desk, frowning at the heap of crumpled papers.

MacDonald hastily swallowed the rest of his tea, and with a lift of the eyebrows, invited me to accompany him to the upper deck. We were standing on deck, waiting as a local fishing boat made its way out to the Cruizer from shore, when he suddenly laid a hand on my arm.

This startled me; MacDonald was not a casual toucher.

“I will do my utmost to discover your husband’s whereabouts, mum,” he said. “It occurs to me, though—” He hesitated, eyes on my face.

“What?” I said cautiously.

“I said I had heard considerable speculation?” he said delicately. “Regarding . . . erm . . . the unfortunate demise of Miss Christie. Would it not be . . . desirable . . . that I know the truth of the matter, so that I might put any ill-natured rumors firmly to rest, should I encounter them?”

I was torn between anger and laughter. I should have known that curiosity would be too much for him. But he was right; given the rumors I had heard—and I knew they were but a fraction of those circulating—the truth was certainly more desirable. On the other hand, I was entirely sure that the telling of the truth would do nothing to quell the rumors.

And still. The urge to be justified was a strong one; I understood those poor wretches who cried their innocence from the gallows—and I bloody hoped I wasn’t going to be one.

“Fine,” I said crisply. The first mate was back by the rail, keeping an eye on the fort, and within earshot, but I supposed it didn’t matter whether he heard.

“The truth is this: Malva Christie was got with child by someone, but rather than name the real father, insisted that it was my husband. I know this to be false,” I added, fixing him with a gimlet stare. He nodded, mouth a little open.

“A few days later, I went out to tend my garden and found the little—Miss Christie lying in my lettuce patch with her throat freshly cut. I thought . . . there was some chance that I might save her unborn child. . . .” Despite my assumption of bravado, my voice trembled a little. I stopped, clearing my throat. “I couldn’t. The child was born dead.”

Much better not to say how it was born; that weltering image of severed flesh and dirt-smeared blade was not one I wished the Major to have in mind, if it could be prevented. I had told no one—not even Jamie—about the faint flicker of life, that tingle that I still held secret in the palms of my hands. To say that the child had been born alive was to arouse immediate suspicion that I had killed it, and I knew as much. Some would think that anyway; Mrs. Martin plainly had.

MacDonald’s hand was still resting on my arm, his gaze on my face. For once, I blessed the transparency of my countenance; no one watching my face ever doubted what I said.

“I see,” he said quietly, and gently squeezed my arm.

I took a deep breath, and told him the rest—circumstantial details might convince some hearers.

“You know that there were bee gums at the edge of my garden? The murderer kicked two of them over in fleeing; he must have been stung several times—I was, when I came into the garden. Jamie—Jamie had no stings. It wasn’t him.” And under the circumstances, I had not been able to find out which man—or woman? For the first time, it occurred to me that it could have been a woman—had been stung.

At this, he gave a deep “hum!” of interest. He stood for a moment in contemplation, then shook his head, as though waking from a dream, and let go my arm.

“I thank ye, mum, for telling me,” he said formally, and bowed to me. “Be assured, I will speak in your behalf, whenever the occasion shall arise.”

“I appreciate that, Major.” My voice was husky, and I swallowed. I hadn’t realized how much it would hurt to speak of.

The wind stirred around us, and the reefed sails rustled in their ropes overhead. A shout from below announced the presence of the boat that would carry MacDonald back to the shore.

He bowed low over my hand, breath warm on my knuckles. For an instant, my fingers tightened on his; I was surprisingly reluctant to let him go. But let him go I did, and watched him all the way to the shore; a diminishing silhouette against the brightness of the water, back straight with resolution. He didn’t look back.

The mate moved at the rail, sighing, and I glanced at him, then at the fort.

“What are they doing?” I asked. Some of the antlike forms seemed to be dropping lines from the walls to their fellows on the ground; I saw the ropes, fine as spiderwebs from this distance.

“I do believe the fort’s commander is preparing to remove the cannon, madam,” he said, snapping shut his brass telescope with a click. “If you will excuse me, I need to go inform the captain.”

96

GUNPOWDER, TREASON,

AND PLOT

IF THE GOVERNOR’S ATTITUDE toward me was altered by the news that I was not in fact a forger but rather a notorious—if merely accused—murderess, I had no opportunity to find out. He, like the rest of the officers and half the men aboard, rushed to the rail, and the rest of the day passed in a flurry of observation, speculation, and largely fruitless activity.

The lookout at the masthead called down periodic observations—men were leaving the fort, carrying things . . . the fort’s weaponry, it looked like.

“Are they Collet’s men?” the Governor bellowed, shading his eyes to look aloft.

“Can’t say, sir,” came the unhelpful reply from above.

At last, the Cruizer’s two launches were sent ashore, with orders to collect what information they could. They came back several hours later, with the news that Collet had abandoned the fort, in the face of threats, but had taken pains to remove the guns and powder, lest these fall into rebel hands.

No, sir, they had not spoken with Colonel Collet, who was—by rumor—on his way upriver with his militia forces. They had sent two men down the road toward Wilmington; it was true that a large force was gathering in the fields outside the town, under Colonels Robert Howe and John Ashe, but no word of what was planned.

“No word of what’s planned, God’s ballocks!” muttered the Governor, having been ceremoniously informed of this by Captain Follard. “They mean to burn the fort, what else would Ashe be planning, for the love of Jesus?”

His instincts were quite sound; just before sunset, the scent of smoke came across the water, and we could just make out the antlike scurrying of men, piling heaps of flammable debris around the base of the fort. It was a simple, square building, made of logs. And despite the dampness of the humid air, it would burn, eventually.

It took them no little time to get the fire going, though, with neither powder nor oil to hasten its burning; as night fell, we could clearly see flaming torches, streaming in the breeze as they were carried to and fro, passed from hand to hand, dipping to touch off a pile of kindling, coming back a few minutes later, as the kindling went out.

Around nine o’clock, someone found a few barrels of turpentine, and the blaze took a sudden, lethal hold of the fort’s log walls. Sheets of wavering flame rose pure and brilliant, orange and crimson billows against the night-black sky, and we heard scraps of cheering and snatches of ribald song, borne with the smell of smoke and the tang of turpentine on the offshore breeze.

“At least we needn’t worry about the mosquitoes,” I observed, waving a cloud of whitish smoke away from my face.

“Thank you, Mrs. Fraser,” said the Governor. “I had not considered that particular positive aspect of the matter.” He spoke with some bitterness, his fists resting impotently on the rail.

I took the hint, and said no more. For myself, the leaping flames and the column of smoke that rose wavering toward the stars were cause for celebration. Not for any benefit that the burning of Fort Johnston might be to the rebel cause—but because Jamie might be there, by one of the campfires that had sprung up on the shore below the fort.

And if he was . . . he would come tomorrow.

HE DID. I was awake well before dawn—in fact, I had not slept—and standing at the rail. There was little of the usual boat traffic this morning, in the wake of the fort’s burning; the bitter smell of wood ash mingled with the marshy smell of the nearby mud flats, and the water was still and oily-looking. It was a gray day, heavily overcast, and a deep bank of haze hung over the water, hiding the shore.

I kept watching, though, and when a small boat came out of the haze, I knew at once that it was Jamie. He was alone.

I watched the long, smooth reach of his arms and the pull of the oars, and felt a sudden deep, calm happiness. I had no notion what might happen—and all the horror and anger connected with Malva’s death still lurked at the back of my mind, a great dark shape under very thin ice. But he was there. Near enough now to see his face, as he looked back over his shoulder toward the ship.

I lifted a hand to wave; his eyes were already fixed on me. He didn’t stop rowing, but turned round and came on. I stood clinging to the rail, waiting.

The rowboat passed out of sight for a moment, under the lee of the Cruizer, and I heard the watch hail him, the deep half-audible answer, and felt something that had been knotted inside me for a long time let go at the sound of his voice.

I stood rooted, though, not able to move. Then there were footsteps on deck, and a murmur of voices—someone going to fetch the Governor—and I turned blindly, into Jamie’s arms.

“Knew you’d come,” I whispered into the linen of his shirt. He reeked of fire: smoke and pinesap and scorched cloth, and the bitter tang of turpentine. Reeked of stale sweat and horses, the weariness of a man who has not slept, who has labored all night, the faint yeasty smell of long hunger.

He held me close, ribs and breath and warmth and muscle, then put me away from him a little and looked down into my face. He had been smiling since I saw him. It lit his eyes, and without a word, he pulled the cap off my head and threw it over the rail. He ran his hands through my hair, fluffing it out into abandon, then cupped my head in his hands and kissed me, fingers digging into my scalp. He had a three-day beard, which rasped my skin like sandpaper, and his mouth was home and safety.

Somewhere behind him, one of the Marines coughed, and said loudly, “You wished to see the Governor, I believe, sir?”

He let go, slowly, and turned.

“I do indeed,” he said, and put out a hand to me. “Sassenach?”

I took it, and followed the Marine, heading for the companionway. I glanced back over the rail, to see my cap bobbing in the swell, puffed with air and tranquil as a jellyfish.

The momentary illusion of peace vanished directly, though, once we were below.

The Governor had been up most of the night, as well, and didn’t look much better than Jamie, though he was not, of course, besmeared with soot. He was, however, unshaven, bloodshot, and in no mood to be trifled with.

“Mr. Fraser,” he said with a short nod. “You are James Fraser, I collect? And you dwell in the mountain backcountry?”

“I am the Fraser, of Fraser’s Ridge,” Jamie said courteously. “And I have come for my wife.”

“Oh, have you.” The Governor gave him a sour look and sat down, gesturing indifferently at a stool. “I regret to inform you, sir, that your wife is a prisoner of the Crown. Though perhaps you were aware of this?”

Jamie ignored this bit of sarcasm and took the proffered seat.

“In fact, she is not,” he said. “It is true, is it not, that you have declared martial law upon the colony of North Carolina?”

“It is,” Martin said shortly. This was rather a sore point, since while he had declared martial law, he was in no position actually to enforce it, but was obliged to float impotently offshore, fuming, until and unless England chose to send him reinforcements.

“Then in fact, all customary legal usage is suspended,” Jamie pointed out. “You alone have control over the custody and disposition of any prisoners—and my wife has in fact been in your custody for some little time. Ye therefore have also the power to release her.”

“Hm,” said the Governor. Plainly he hadn’t thought of that, and wasn’t sure of its ramifications. At the same time, the notion that he was in control of anything at all at the moment was likely soothing to his inflamed spirits.

“She has not been committed for trial, and in fact, there has been no evidence whatever adduced against her,” Jamie said firmly.

I found myself uttering a silent prayer of thanks that I had told MacDonald the gory details after his visit with the Governor—it might not be what a modern court called evidence, but being found with a knife in my hand and two warm, bloody corpses was very damned circumstantial.

“She is accused, but there is no merit to the charge. Surely, having had her acquaintance for even so short a time as you have, ye will have drawn your own conclusions as to her character?” Not waiting for an answer to this, he pressed on.

“When accusation was made, we did not resist the attempt to bring my wife—or myself, for I also have been accused in the matter—to trial. What better indication is there that we should hold such conviction of her innocence as to wish for a speedy trial to establish it?”

The Governor had narrowed his eyes, and appeared to be thinking intently.

“Your arguments are not entirely lacking in virtue, sir,” he said at last, with formal courtesy. “However, I understand that the crime of which your wife stands accused was a most heinous one. For me to release her must necessarily cause public outcry—and I have had rather enough of public unrest,” he added, with a bleak look at the scorched cuffs of Jamie’s coat.

Jamie took a deep breath and had another go.

“I quite understand Your Excellency’s reservations,” he said. “Perhaps some . . . surety might be offered, which would overcome them?”

Martin sat bolt upright in his chair, receding jaw thrust out.

“What do you suggest, sir? Have you the impertinence, the—the—unspeakable bloody face to try to bribe me?” He slapped both hands down on the desk and glared from Jamie to me and back. “God damn it, I should hang the two of you, out of hand!”

“Very nice, Mr. Ohnat,” I muttered to Jamie under my breath. “At least we’re already married.”

“Oh, ah,” he replied, giving me a brief glance of incomprehension before returning his attention to the Governor, who was muttering “Swing them from the bloody yardarm . . . the infernal cheek of it, the creatures!”

“I had no such intent, sir.” Jamie kept his voice level, his eyes direct. “What I offer is a bond, against my wife’s appearance in court to answer the charge against her. When she does so appear, it would be returned to me.”

Before the Governor could respond to this, he reached into his pocket and withdrew something small and dark, which he set on the desk. The black diamond.

The sight of it stopped Martin in mid-sentence. He blinked, once, his long-nosed face going almost comically blank. He rubbed a finger slowly across his upper lip, considering.

Having seen a great deal of the Governor’s private correspondence and accounts by now, I was well aware that he had few private means, and was obliged to live far beyond his modest income in order to maintain the appearances necessary for a Royal Governor.

The Governor in turn was well aware that in the current state of unrest, there was little chance of my being brought to trial in any sort of timely manner. It could be months—and possibly years—before the court system was restored to anything like routine function. And for however long it took, he would have the diamond. He couldn’t in honor simply sell the thing—but could most assuredly borrow a substantial sum against it, in the reasonable expectation that he might redeem it later.

I saw his eyes flicker toward the sooty marks on Jamie’s coat, narrowing in speculation. There was also a good possibility of Jamie’s being killed or arrested for treason—and I saw the impulse to do just that pop momentarily into his mind—which would leave the diamond perhaps in legal limbo, but certainly in Martin’s possession. I had to force myself to keep on breathing.

But he wasn’t stupid, Martin—nor was he venal. With a small sigh, he pushed the stone back toward Jamie.

“No, sir,” he said, though his voice had now lost its earlier outrage. “I will not accept this as bond for your wife. But the notion of surety . . .” His gaze went to the stack of papers on his desk, and returned to Jamie.

“I will make you a proposition, sir,” he said abruptly. “I have an action in train, an operation by which I hope to raise a considerable body of the Scottish Highlanders, who will march from the backcountry to the coast, there to meet with troops sent from England, and in the process, to subdue the countryside on behalf of the King.”

He paused for breath, eyeing Jamie closely to assess the effect of his speech. I was standing close behind Jamie, and couldn’t see his face, but didn’t need to. Bree, joking, called it his “brag face”; no one looking at him would ever know whether he held four aces, a full house, or a pair of threes. I was betting on the pair of threes, myself—but Martin didn’t know him nearly as well as I did.

“General Hugh MacDonald and a Colonel Donald McLeod came into the colony some time ago, and have been traversing the countryside, rallying support—which they have gained in gratifying numbers, I am pleased to say.” His fingers drummed briefly on the letters, then stopped abruptly as he leaned forward.

“What I propose, then, sir, is this: you will return to the backcountry, and gather such men as you can. You will then report to General MacDonald and commit your troops to his campaign. When I receive word from MacDonald that you have arrived—with, let us say, two hundred men—then, sir, I will release your wife to you.”

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