A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 87

   

I took a deep breath and asked the question that had lain unspoken between us since the murder.

“You don’t think it was Ian?”

He nearly smiled at that.

“If it had been, a nighean, we’d know. Ian could kill; he couldna let you or me suffer for it.”

I sighed, shifting my shoulders to ease the knot between them. He was right, and I felt comforted, on Ian’s account—and still more guilty, on Tom Christie’s.

“The man who fathered her child—if that wasn’t Ian, and I so hope it wasn’t—or someone who wanted her and killed her from jealousy when he found she was pregnant—”

“Or someone already wed. Or a woman, Sassenach.”

That stopped me cold. “A woman?”

“She took love,” he repeated, and shook his head. “What makes ye think it was only the young men she took it from?”

I closed my eyes, envisioning the possibilities. If she had had an affair with a married man—and they had looked at her, too, only more discreetly—yes, he might have killed her to keep it undiscovered. Or a scorned wife . . . I had a brief, shocking glimpse of Murdina Bug, face contorted with effort as she pressed the pillow over Lionel Brown’s face. Arch? God, no. Once again, with a sense of utter hopelessness, I turned away from the question, seeing in mind the myriad faces of Fraser’s Ridge—one of them hiding a murderer’s soul.

“No, I know it can’t be fixed for them—not Malva, or Tom. Or—or even Allan.” For the first time, I spared a thought for Tom’s son, so suddenly bereft of his family and in such dreadful circumstances. “But the rest . . .” The Ridge, I meant. Home. The life we had had. Us.

It had grown warm under the quilt, lying together—too warm, and I felt the heat of a hot flush wash over me. I sat up abruptly, throwing off the quilt, and leaned forward, lifting the hair off my neck in hopes of an instant’s coolness.

“Stand up, Sassenach.”

Jamie rolled out of bed, stood up, and took me by the hand, pulling me to my feet. Sweat had already broken out on my body like dew, and my cheeks were flushed. He bent and, taking the hem of my shift in both hands, stripped it off over my head.

He smiled faintly, looking at me, then bent and blew softly over my br**sts. The coolness was a tiny but blessed relief, and my n**ples rose in silent gratitude.

He opened the shutters for more air, then stepped back and pulled off his own shirt. Day had broken fully now, and the flood of pure morning light glimmered on the lines of his pale torso, on the silver web of his scars, the red-gold dusting of hair on his arms and legs, the rust and silver hairs of his sprouting beard. Likewise on the darkly suffused flesh of his gen**als in their morning state, standing stiff against his belly and gone the deep, soft color one would find in the heart of a shadowed rose.

“As to putting things right,” he said, “I canna say—though I mean to try.” His eyes moved over me—stark nak*d, slightly salt-encrusted, and noticeably grimy about the feet and ankles. He smiled. “Shall we make a start, Sassenach?”

“You’re so tired you can barely stand up,” I protested. “Um—with certain exceptions,” I added, glancing down. It was true; there were dark hollows under his eyes, and while the lines of his body were still long and graceful, they were also eloquent of deep fatigue. I felt as though I’d been run over by a steamroller myself, and I hadn’t been up all night burning down forts.

“Well, seeing as we’ve a bed to hand, I didna plan to stand up for it,” he replied. “Mind, I may never get back on my feet again, but I think I might be able to stay awake for the next ten minutes or so, at least. Ye can pinch me if I fall asleep,” he suggested, smiling.

I rolled my eyes at him, but didn’t argue. I lay down upon the grubby but now-cool sheets, and with a small tremor in the pit of my stomach, opened my legs for him.

We made love like people underwater, heavy-limbed and slow. Mute, able to speak only through crude pantomime. We had barely touched one another in this way since Malva’s death—and the thought of her was still with us.

And not only her. For a time, I tried to focus only on Jamie, fixing my attention on the small intimacies of his body, so well known—the tiny white cicatrice of the triangular scar at his throat, the whorls of auburn hair and the sunburned skin beneath—but I was so tired that my mind refused to cooperate, and persisted in showing me instead random bits of memory or, even more disturbing, imagination.

“It’s no good,” I said. My eyes were shut tight, and I was clinging to the bedclothes with both hands, sheets knotted in my fingers. “I can’t.”

He made a small sound of surprise, but at once rolled away, leaving me damp and trembling.

“What is it, a nighean?” he said softly. He didn’t touch me, but lay close.

“I don’t know,” I said, close to panic. “I keep seeing—I’m sorry, I’m sorry, Jamie. I see other people; it’s like I’m making love to other m-men.”

“Oh, aye?” He sounded cautious, but not upset. There was a whish of fabric, and he drew the sheet up over me. That helped a little, but not much. My heart was pounding hard in my chest, I felt dizzy and couldn’t seem to take a full breath; my throat kept closing.

Bolus hystericus, I thought, quite calmly. Do stop, Beauchamp. Easier said than done, but I did stop worrying that I was having a heart attack.

“Ah . . .” Jamie’s voice was cautious. “Who? Hodgepile and—”

“No!” My stomach clenched in revulsion at the thought. I swallowed. “No, I—I hadn’t even thought of that.”

He lay quietly beside me, breathing. I felt as though I were literally coming apart.

“Who is it that ye see, Claire?” he whispered. “Can ye tell me?”

“Frank,” I said, fast, before I could change my mind. “And Tom. And—and Malva.” My chest heaved, and I felt that I would never have air enough to breathe again.

“I could—all of a sudden, I could feel them all,” I blurted. “Touching me. Wanting to come in.” I rolled over, burying my face in the pillow, as though I could seal out everything.

Jamie was silent for a long time. Had I hurt him? I was sorry that I’d told him—but I had no defenses anymore. I could not lie, even for the best of reasons; there was simply no place to go, nowhere to hide. I felt beset by whispering ghosts, their loss, their need, their desperate love pulling me apart. Apart from Jamie, apart from myself.

My entire body was clenched and rigid, trying to keep from dissolution, and my face was pushed so deep into the pillow, trying to escape, that I felt I might suffocate, and was obliged to turn my head, gasping for breath.

“Claire.” Jamie’s voice was soft, but I felt his breath on my face and my eyes popped open. His eyes were soft, too, shadowed with sorrow. Very slowly, he lifted a hand and touched my lips.

“Tom,” I blurted. “I feel as though he’s already dead, because of me, and it’s so terrible. I can’t bear it, Jamie, I really can’t!”

“I know.” He moved his hand, hesitated. “Can ye bear it if I touch ye?”

“I don’t know.” I swallowed the lump in my throat. “Try it and see.”

That made him smile, though I’d spoken with complete seriousness. He put his hand gently on my shoulder and turned me, then gathered me against him, moving slowly, so that I might pull back. I didn’t.

I sank into him, and clung to him as though he was a floating spar, the only thing keeping me from drowning. He was.

He held me close and stroked my hair for a long time.

“Can ye weep for them, mo nighean donn?” he whispered into my hair at last. “Let them come in.”

The mere idea made me go rigid with panic again. “I can’t.”

“Weep for them,” he whispered, and his voice opened me deeper than his cock. “Ye canna hold a ghost at bay.”

“I can’t. I’m afraid,” I said, but I was already shaking with grief, tears wet on my face. “I can’t!”

And yet I did. Gave up the struggle and opened myself, to memory and sorrow. Sobbed as though my heart would break—and let it break, for them, and all I could not save.

“Let them come, and grieve them, Claire,” he whispered. “And when they’ve gone, I’ll take ye home.”

99

OLD MASTER

River Run

IT HAD RAINED HARD THE NIGHT BEFORE, and while the sun had come out bright and hot, the ground was soggy and steam seemed to rise from it, adding to the thickness of the air. Brianna had put her hair up, to keep it off her neck, but wisps escaped constantly, clinging damply to forehead and cheeks, always in her eyes. She wiped a strand away crossly with the back of her hand; her fingers were smeared with the pigment she was grinding—and the humidity wasn’t doing that any good, making the powder clump and cling to the sides of the mortar.

She needed it, though; she had a new commission, due to start this afternoon.

Jem was hanging round, too, bored and poking his fingers into everything. He was singing to himself, half under his breath; she paid no attention, until she happened to catch a few words.

“What did you say?” she asked, rounding on him incredulously. He couldn’t have been singing “Folsom Prison Blues”—could he?

He blinked at her, lowered his chin to his chest, and said—in the deepest voice he could produce—“Hello. I’m Johnny Cash.”

She narrowly stopped herself laughing out loud, feeling her cheeks go pink with the effort of containment.

“Where did you get that?” she asked, though she knew perfectly well. There was only one place he could have gotten it, and her heart rose up at the thought.

“Daddy,” he said logically.

“Has Daddy been singing?” she asked, trying to sound casual. He had to have been. And, just as obviously, had to have been trying Claire’s advice, to shift the register of his voice so as to loosen his frozen vocal cords.

“Uh-huh. Daddy sings a lot. He teached me the song about Sunday morning, and the one about Tom Dooley, and . . . and lots,” he ended, rather at a loss.

“Did he? Well, that’s—put that down!” she said, as he idly picked up an open pouch of rose madder.

“Oops.” He looked guiltily at the blob of paint that had erupted from the leather pouch and landed on his shirt, then at her, and made a tentative move toward the door.

“Oops, he says,” she said darkly. “Don’t you move!” Snaking out a hand, she grabbed him by the collar and applied a turpentine-soaked rag vigorously to the front of his shirt, succeeding only in producing a large pink blotch rather than a vivid red line.

Jem was silent during this ordeal, head bobbing as she pulled him to and fro, swabbing.

“What are you doing in here, anyway?” she demanded crossly. “Didn’t I tell you to go find something to do?” There was no shortage of things to do at River Run, after all.

He hung his head and muttered something, in which she made out the word “scared.”

“Scared? Of what?” A little more gently, she pulled the shirt off over his head.

“The ghost.”

“What ghost?” she asked warily, not sure yet how to handle this. She was aware that all of the slaves at River Run believed implicitly in ghosts, simply as a fact of life. So did virtually all of the Scottish settlers in Cross Creek, Campbelton, and the Ridge. And the Germans from Salem and Bethania. So, for that matter, did her own father.

She could not simply inform Jem that there was no such thing as a ghost—particularly as she was not entirely convinced of that herself.

“Maighistear àrsaidh’s ghost,” he said, looking up at her for the first time, his dark blue eyes troubled. “Josh says he’s been walkin’.”

Something skittered down her back like a centipede. Maighistear àrsaidh was Old Master—Hector Cameron. Involuntarily, she glanced toward the window. They were in the small room above the stable block where she did the messier bits of paint preparation, and Hector Cameron’s white marble mausoleum was clearly visible from here, gleaming like a tooth at the side of the lawn below.

“What makes Josh say that, I wonder?” she said, stalling for time. Her first impulse was to observe that ghosts didn’t walk in broad daylight—but the obvious corollary to that was that they did walk by night, and the last thing she wanted to do was give Jem nightmares.

“He says Angelina saw him, night before last. A big ol’ ghost,” he said, stretching up, hands clawed, and widening his eyes in obvious imitation of Josh’s account.

“Yeah? What was he doing?” She kept her tone light, only mildly interested, and it seemed to be working; Jem was more interested than scared, for the moment.

“Walkin’,” Jem said with a small shrug. What else did ghosts do, after all?

“Was he smoking a pipe?” She’d caught sight of a tall gentleman strolling under the trees on the lawn below, and had an idea.

Jem looked somewhat taken aback at the notion of a pipe-smoking ghost.

“I dunno,” he said dubiously. “Do ghosts smoke pipes?”

“I sort of doubt it,” she said. “But Mr. Buchanan does. See him down there on the lawn?” She moved aside, gesturing toward the window with her chin, and Jem rose up on his toes to look out over the sill. Mr. Buchanan, an acquaintance of Duncan’s who was staying at the house, was in fact smoking a pipe at this very moment; the faint aroma of his tobacco reached them through the open window.

“I think probably Angelina saw Mr. Buchanan walking around in the dark,” she said. “Maybe he was in his nightshirt, going out to the necessary, and she just saw the white and thought he was a ghost.”

Jem giggled at the thought. He seemed willing to be reassured, but hunched his skinny shoulders, peering closely at Mr. Buchanan.

“Josh says Angelina says the ghost was comin’ out of old Mr. Hector’s tomb,” he said.

“I expect Mr. Buchanan just walked round it, and she saw him coming along the side, and thought he was coming out of it,” she said, carefully avoiding any question as to why a middle-aged Scottish gentleman should be walking round tombs in his nightshirt; obviously, that wasn’t a notion that struck Jemmy as odd.

It did occur to her to ask just what Angelina was doing outside in the middle of the night seeing ghosts, but on second thought, better not. The most likely reason for a maid’s stealing out at night wasn’t something a boy of Jemmy’s age needed to hear about, either.

Her lips tightened a little at the thought of Malva Christie, who had perhaps gone to a rendezvous of her own in Claire’s garden. Who? she wondered for the thousandth time, even as she automatically crossed herself, with a brief prayer for the repose of Malva’s soul. Who had it been? If ever there were a ghost that should walk . . .

A small shiver passed over her, but that in turn gave her a new idea.

“I think it was Mr. Buchanan Angelina saw,” she said firmly. “But if you ever should be afraid of ghosts—or anything else—you just make the Sign of the Cross, and say a quick prayer to your guardian angel.”

The words gave her a slight sense of dizziness—perhaps it was déjà vu. She thought that someone—her mother? her father?—had said exactly that to her, sometime in the distant past of her childhood. What she had been afraid of? She no longer remembered that, but did remember the sense of security that the prayer had given her.

Jem frowned uncertainly at that; he knew the Sign of the Cross, but wasn’t so sure about the angel prayer. She rehearsed it with him, feeling slightly guilty as she did so.

It was only a matter of time before he did something overtly Catholic—like make the Sign of the Cross—in front of someone who mattered to Roger. For the most part, people either assumed that the minister’s wife was Protestant, as well—or knew the truth, but were in no position to make a fuss about it. She was aware of a certain amount of muttering amongst Roger’s flock, particularly in the wake of Malva’s death and the talk about her parents—she felt her lips press tight again, and consciously relaxed them—but Roger steadfastly refused to hear any such remarks.

She felt a deep pang of longing for Roger, even with the worrying thought of potential religious complications fresh in her mind. He’d written; Elder McCorkle had been delayed, but should be in Edenton within the week. A week more, maybe, before the Presbytery Session convened—and then he’d be coming to River Run for her and Jem.

He was so happy at the thought of his ordination; surely once he was ordained, they couldn’t defrock him—if that’s what happened to miscreant ministers—for having a Catholic wife, could they?

Would she convert, if she had to, for Roger to be what he so clearly wanted—and needed—to be? The thought made her feel hollow, and she put her arms round Jemmy for reassurance. His skin was damp and still baby-soft, but she could feel the hardness of his bones pressing through, giving promise of a size that would likely one day match his father and grandfather. His father—there was a small, glowing thought that calmed all her anxieties, and even soothed the ache of missing Roger.

Jemmy’s hair had long since grown again, but she kissed the spot behind his left ear where the hidden mark was, making him hunch his shoulders and giggle at the tickle of her breath on his neck.

She sent him off then, to take the paint-stained shirt to Matilda the laundress to see what might be done, and went back to her grinding.

The mineral smell of the malachite in her mortar seemed vaguely wrong; she lifted it and sniffed, even as she did so aware that that was ridiculous: ground stone couldn’t go bad. Maybe the mixture of turpentine and the fumes from Mr. Buchanan’s pipe was affecting her sense of smell. She shook her head, and scraped the soft green powder carefully out into a vial, to be mixed with walnut oil or used in an egg tempera later.

She cast an appraising eye over the selection of boxes and pouches—some supplied by Aunt Jocasta, others courtesy of John Grey, sent specially from London—and the vials and drying trays of the pigments she’d ground herself, to see what else might be needed.

This afternoon, she’d only be making preliminary sketches—the commission was for a portrait of Mr. Forbes’s ancient mother—but she might have only a week or two to finish the job before Roger’s return; she couldn’t waste—

A wave of dizziness made her sit down suddenly, and black spots flickered through her vision. She put her head between her knees, breathing deep. That didn’t help; the air was raw with turps, and thick with the meaty, decaying animal smells of the stables below.

She lifted her head, and grabbed for the edge of the table. Her insides seemed to have turned abruptly to a liquid substance that shifted with her movement like water in a bowl, sloshing from belly to throat and back, leaving the bitter yellow smell of bile at the back of her nose.

“Oh, God.”

The liquid in her belly rushed up her throat, and she had barely time to seize the washbasin from the table and dump the water on the floor before her stomach turned inside out in the frantic effort to empty itself.

She set the basin down, very carefully, and sat panting, staring at the wet blotch on the floor, as the world beneath her shifted on its axis and settled at a new, uneasy angle.

“Congratulations, Roger,” she said out loud, her voice sounding faint and uncertain in the close, damp air. “I think you’re going to be a daddy. Again.”

SHE SAT STILL for some time, cautiously exploring the sensations of her body, looking for certainty. She hadn’t been sick with Jemmy—but she remembered the oddly altered quality of her senses; that odd state called synesthesia, where sight, smell, taste, and even sometimes hearing occasionally and weirdly took on characteristics of each other.

It had gone away as abruptly as it had happened; the tang of Mr. Buchanan’s tobacco was much stronger, but now it was only the mellow burning of cured leaves, not a mottled green-brown thing that writhed through her sinuses and rattled the membranes of her brain like a tin roof in a hailstorm.

She had been concentrating so hard on her bodily sensations and what they might or might not mean that she hadn’t really noticed the voices in the next room. That was Duncan’s modest lair, where he kept the ledgers and accounts of the estate and—she thought—went to hide, when the grandeur of the house became too much for him.

Mr. Buchanan was in there with Duncan now, and what had started out as a genial thrum of conversation was now showing signs of strain. She got up, relieved to feel only a slight residual clamminess now, and picked up the basin. She had the natural human inclinations toward eavesdropping, but lately, she had been careful not to hear anything but what she must.

Duncan and her aunt Jocasta were stout Loyalists, and nothing she could say by way of tactful urging or logical argument would sway them. She had overheard more than one of Duncan’s private conversations with local Tories that made her heart go small with apprehension, knowing as she did what would be the outcome of the present events.

Here in the piedmont, in the heart of the Cape Fear country, most of the solid citizens were Loyalists, convinced that the violence taking place to the north was an overblown rumpus that might be unnecessary, and if it was not, had little to do with them—and that what was most needed here was a firm hand to rein in the wild-eyed Whigs, before their excesses provoked a ruinous retaliation. Knowing that exactly such a ruinous retaliation was coming—and to people she liked, or even loved—gave her what her father called the grue: a cold sense of oppressive horror, coiling through the blood.

“When, then?” Buchanan’s voice came clearly as she opened the door, sounding impatient. “They will not wait, Duncan. I must have the money by Wednesday week, or Dunkling will sell the arms elsewhere; ye ken it’s a seller’s market the noo. For gold, he’ll wait—but not for long.”

“Aye, I ken that fine, Sawny.” Duncan sounded impatient—and very uneasy, Brianna thought. “If it can be done, it will be.”

“IF?” Buchanan cried. “What is this ‘if’? ’Til now, it’s been, oh, aye, Sawny, nay difficulty, to be sure, Sawny, tell Dunkling it’s on, oh, of course, Sawny—”

“I said, Alexander, that if it can be done, it will.” Duncan’s voice was low, but suddenly had a note of steel in it that she had never heard before.

Buchanan said something rude in the Gaelic, and suddenly the door of Duncan’s office burst open and the man himself popped out, in so great a huff that he barely saw her, and gave her no more than a brusque nod in passing.

Which was just as well, she thought, since she was standing there holding a bowl full of vomit.

Before she could move to dispose of it, Duncan came out in turn. He looked hot, cross—and extremely worried. He did, however, notice her.

“How d’ye fare, lass?” he asked, squinting at her. “Ye’re that bit green; have ye eaten aught amiss?”

“I think so. But I’m all right now,” she said, hastily turning to put the basin back in the room behind her. She set it on the floor and closed the door on it. “Are you, er, all right, Duncan?”

He hesitated for an instant, but whatever was bothering him was too overwhelming to keep it bottled up. He glanced about, but none of the slaves was up here at this time of day. He leaned close, nonetheless, and lowered his voice.

“Have ye by chance . . . seen anything peculiar, a nighean?”

“Peculiar, how?”

He rubbed a knuckle under his drooping mustache, and glanced round once more.

“Near Hector Cameron’s tomb, say?” he asked, his voice pitched only just above a whisper.

Her diaphragm, still sore from vomiting, contracted sharply at that, and she put a hand to her middle.

“Ye have, then?” Duncan’s expression sharpened.

“Not me,” she said, and explained about Jemmy, Angelina, and the supposed ghost.

“I thought perhaps it was Mr. Buchanan,” she finished, nodding toward the stair down which Alexander Buchanan had vanished.

“Now, there’s a thought,” Duncan muttered, rubbing distractedly at his grizzled temple. “But no . . . surely not. He couldna—but it’s a thought.” Brianna thought that he looked very slightly more hopeful.

“Duncan—can you tell me what’s wrong?”

He took a deep breath, shaking his head—not in refusal, but in perplexity—and let it out again, his shoulders slumping.

“The gold,” he said simply. “It’s gone.”

SEVEN THOUSAND POUNDS in gold bullion was a substantial amount, in all senses of the word. She had no idea how much such a sum might weigh, but it had completely lined Jocasta’s coffin, standing chastely next to Hector Cameron’s in the family mausoleum.

“What do you mean ‘gone’?” she blurted. “All of it?”

Duncan clutched her arm, features contorted in the urge to shush her.

“Aye, all of it,” he said, looking round yet again. “For God’s sake, lass, keep your voice down!”

“When did it go? Or rather,” she amended, “when you did find it gone?”

“Last night.” He looked round yet again, and jerked his chin toward his office. “Come in, lass; I’ll tell ye about it.”

Duncan’s agitation subsided a little as he told her the story; by the time he had finished, he had regained a certain amount of outward calm.

The seven thousand pounds was what was left of the original ten thousand, which in turn was one-third of the thirty thousand sent—too late, but sent nonetheless—from Louis of France in support of Charles Stuart’s doomed attempt on the thrones of England and Scotland.

“Hector was careful, aye?” Duncan explained. “He lived as a rich man, but always within such means as a place like this”—he waved his one hand around, indicating the grounds and messuages of River Run—“might provide. He spent a thousand pound acquiring the land and building the house, then over the years, another thousand in slaves, cattle, and the like. And a thousand pound he put to the bankers—Jo said he couldna bear the thought of all that money sitting, earning nay interest”—he gave her a small, wry smile—“though he was too clever to attract attention by putting it all out. I suppose he meant, maybe, to invest the rest, a bit at a time—but he died before that was done.”

Leaving Jocasta as a very wealthy widow—but even more cautious than her husband had been about attracting undue attention. And so the gold had sat, safe in its hiding place, save for the one ingot being gradually whittled away and disposed of by Ulysses. Which had disappeared, she remembered with a qualm. Someone knew there was gold here.

Perhaps whoever had taken that ingot had guessed that there was more—and hunted, quietly, patiently, until they found it.

But now—

“Ye’ll have heard about General MacDonald?”

She’d heard the name frequently of late, in conversation—he was a Scottish general, more or less retired, she’d assumed—who had been staying here and there, the guest of various prominent families. She hadn’t heard of his purpose, though.

“He means to raise men—three thousand, four—among the Highlanders, to march to the coast. The Governor’s sent for aid; troopships are coming. So the General’s men will come down through the Cape Fear valley”—he made a graceful swooping gesture with his hand—“meet the Governor and his troops—and pincer the rebel militias that are a-building.”

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