A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 94

   

“Should we tell them about Neil Forbes?” I’d asked, but Jamie had shaken his head.

“Forbes willna trouble any member of my family again,” he said definitely. “And to tell my aunt or Duncan about it . . . I think Duncan has sufficient trouble on his hands; he’d feel obliged to take issue wi’ Forbes, and that’s a stramash he doesna need to start just now. As for my aunt . . .” He didn’t complete the statement, but the bleakness of his countenance spoke well enough. The MacKenzies of Leoch were a vengeful lot, and neither he nor I would put it past Jocasta to invite Neil Forbes to dinner and poison him.

“Always assuming that Mr. Forbes is accepting dinner invitations these days,” I joked uneasily. “Do you know what Ian did with the . . . er . . .”

“He said he was going to feed it to his dog,” Jamie replied thoughtfully. “But I dinna ken was he serious or not.”

Phaedre had been a good deal shocked, both by her experiences and by the loss of Josh, and Brianna insisted that we bring her back to the Ridge with us to recover, until we could find a reasonable place for her.

“We have to get Aunt Jocasta to free her,” Bree had argued.

“I think that willna be difficult,” Jamie had assured her with a certain grimness. “Not knowing what we know. But wait a bit, until we find a place for the lass—then I’ll see to it.”

As it was, that particular matter took care of itself with stunning abruptness.

I opened the door to a knock one afternoon in October, to find three weary horses and a pack mule in the dooryard, and Jocasta, Duncan, and the black butler Ulysses standing on the stoop.

The sight of them was so utterly incongruous that I merely stood there gaping at them, until Jocasta said acerbically, “Weel, lass, d’ye mean us to stand here until we’re melted away like sugar in a dish o’ tea?”

It was in fact raining quite hard, and I stepped back so quickly to let them in that I trod on Adso’s paw. He uttered a piercing yowl, which brought Jamie out of his study, Mrs. Bug and Amy from the kitchen—and Phaedre out of the surgery, where she had been grinding herbs for me.

“Phaedre!” Duncan’s jaw dropped, and he took two steps toward her. He stopped abruptly, just before taking her into his arms, but his face suffused with joy.

“Phaedre?” said Jocasta, sounding utterly astounded. Her face had gone quite blank with shock.

Ulysses said nothing, but the look on his face was one of unalloyed horror. Within a second, it was gone, replaced by his usual austere expression of dignity, but I’d seen it—and kept a narrow eye on him during the ensuing confusion of exclamations and embarrassments.

Finally, I got them all out of the front hall. Jocasta suffered a diplomatic headache—though seeing her drawn face, I thought it wasn’t entirely feigned—and was escorted upstairs by Amy, who put her to bed with a cold compress. Mrs. Bug went back to the kitchen, excitedly revising the supper menu. Phaedre, looking frightened, disappeared, doubtless to take refuge in Brianna’s cabin and tell her all about the unexpected arrival—which meant there would be another three for supper.

Ulysses went to deal with the horses, leaving Duncan at last alone to explain matters to Jamie in the study.

“We are emigrating to Canada,” he said, closing his eyes and inhaling the aroma of the glass of whisky in his hand as though it were smelling salts. He looked like he needed them; he was gaunt, and his face was nearly as gray as his hair.

“Canada?” Jamie said, as surprised as I was. “For God’s sake, Duncan, what have ye been doing?”

Duncan smiled wearily, opening his eyes.

“More what I didna do, Mac Dubh,” he said. Brianna had told us about the disappearance of the secret hoard of gold, and had mentioned something about Duncan’s dealings with Lord Dunsmore in Virginia, but had been vague about it—understandably so, as she had been kidnapped a few hours afterward, and had no details.

“I should never ha’ believed matters could come to such a pass—nor sae quickly,” he said, shaking his head. Loyalists had gone suddenly from being a majority in the piedmont to being a threatened and frightened minority. Some folk had been literally chased from their homes, to take refuge skulking in swamps and woods; others had been beaten and badly injured.

“Even Farquard Campbell,” Duncan said, and rubbed a hand tiredly over his face. “The Committee of Safety called him before them, on charges of being loyal to the Crown, and threatened to confiscate his plantation. He put up a great deal of money, pledged as surety for his good behavior, and they let him go—but it was a near thing.”

Near enough to have frightened Duncan badly. The debacle of the promised guns and powder had deprived him of any influence with the local Loyalists and left him completely isolated, vulnerable to the next wave of hostilities—which any fool could see would not be long in coming.

He had therefore moved swiftly to sell River Run at a decent price, before it was seized. He had kept one or two warehouses on the river and a few other assets, but had disposed of the plantation, slaves, and livestock, and proposed to remove at once with his wife to Canada, as many other Loyalists were doing.

“Hamish MacKenzie is there, ken,” he explained. “He and some others from Leoch settled in Nova Scotia, when they left Scotland in the wake of Culloden. He’s Jocasta’s nephew, and we’ve money enough—” He glanced vaguely toward the hall, where Ulysses had dumped the saddlebags. “He’ll help us to find a place.”

He smiled crookedly.

“And if things shouldna turn out well . . . they do say the fishing’s good.”

Jamie smiled at the feeble joke, and poured him more whisky, but he shook his head when he came to join me in the surgery, before dinner.

“They mean to travel overland to Virginia, and with luck take ship there for Nova Scotia. They can perhaps get out of Newport News; it’s a small port, and the British blockade isna tight there—or so Duncan hopes.”

“Oh, dear.” It would be a grueling journey—and Jocasta was not a young woman. And the state of her eye . . . I was not fond of Jocasta, in light of what we had learned about her recently, but to think of her ripped from her home, forced to emigrate while suffering excruciating pain—well, it caused one to think there might be such a thing as divine retribution, after all.

I lowered my voice, looking over my shoulder to be sure Duncan had in fact gone upstairs. “What about Ulysses? And Phaedre?”

Jamie’s lips pressed tight.

“Ah. Well, as to the lass—I asked Duncan to sell her to me. I shall set her free as quickly as I can; perhaps send her to Fergus, in New Bern. He agreed at once, and wrote out a bill of sale on the spot.” He nodded toward his office. “As for Ulysses . . .” His face was grim. “I think that matter will adjust itself, Sassenach.”

Mrs. Bug came bustling down the hall to announce that the supper was served, and I had no chance to ask him what he meant by that remark.

I SQUEEZED OUT the poultice of witch hazel and Carolina allspice, and laid it gently over Jocasta’s eyes. I’d already given her willow-bark tea for the pain, and the poultice would do nothing for the underlying glaucoma—but it would be soothing, at least, and it was a relief to both patient and physician to be able to offer something, even though that might be the merest palliative.

“Will ye have a keek in my saddlebags, lass?” she asked, stretching a little to ease herself on the bed. “There’s a bittie parcel in there of an herb ye might find of interest.”

I found it immediately—by smell.

“Where on earth did you get that?” I asked, halfway amused.

“Farquard Campbell,” she replied matter-of-factly. “When ye told me what the difficulty was with my eyes, I asked Fentiman if he kent anything that might be of help, and he told me that he’d heard somewhere that hemp might be of use. Farquard Campbell has a field of it under cultivation, so I thought I might as well try it. It does seem to help. Would ye put it in my hand, please, niece?”

Fascinated, I put the parcel of hemp and the little stack of papers down on the table beside her, and guided her hand to it. Rolling carefully onto her side to prevent the poultice falling off, she took a good pinch of aromatic herb, sprinkled it down the center of the paper, and rolled as tidy a joint as I had ever seen in Boston.

Without comment, I held the candle flame for her to light it, and she eased herself back on the pillow, nostrils flaring as she took a deep lungful of smoke.

She smoked in silence for some time, and I busied myself in putting things away, not wanting to leave her lest she fall asleep and set the bed on fire—she was clearly exhausted, and relaxing further by the moment.

The pungent, heady smell of the smoke brought back instant, though fragmentary memories. Several of the younger medical students had smoked it on weekends, and would come to the hospital with the scent of it in their clothes. Some of the people brought into the emergency room had reeked of it. Now and then, I’d smelled the faintest hint of it on Brianna—but never inquired.

I hadn’t ever tried it, myself, but now found the smell of the fragrant smoke rather soothing. Rather too soothing, and I went and sat down by the window, open a crack to admit fresh air.

It had been raining off and on all day, and the air was sharp with ozone and tree resins, welcomely cold against my face.

“Ye know, don’t you?” Jocasta’s voice came softly from behind me. I looked round; she hadn’t moved, but lay like a tomb figure on the bed, straight as a die. The poultice bandage over her eyes made her look like the image of Justice—ironic, that, I thought.

“I know,” I said, matching her own calm tone. “Not very fair to Duncan, was it?”

“No.” The word drifted out with the smoke, almost soundless. She lifted the cigarette lazily and drew air through it, making the end glow red. I kept a narrow eye, but she seemed to have a feel for the ash, tapping it now and then into the saucer base of the candlestick.

“He knows, too,” she said, almost casually. “About Phaedre. I told him, finally, to stop him searching for her. I am sure he knows about Ulysses, too—but he doesna speak of it.”

She reached out, unerring, and tapped the ash neatly from the joint.

“I told him I wouldna blame him if he left me, ken.” Her voice was very soft, nearly without emotion. “He wept, but then he stopped, and said to me that he had said, ‘For better or for worse’—and so had I, had I not? I said I had, and he said, ‘Well, then.’ And here we are.” She shrugged a little, settling herself more comfortably, and fell silent, smoking.

I turned my face again to the window and leaned my forehead against the frame. Below, I saw a sudden spill of light as the door opened, and a dark figure came quickly out. The door closed, and I lost sight of him in the darkness for an instant; then my eyes adapted and I saw him again, just before he vanished on the path to the barn.

“He’s gone, isn’t he?” Startled, I turned round to look at her, realizing that she must have heard the closing of the door below.

“Ulysses? Yes, I think so.”

She was still for quite a while, the cigarette burning unregarded in her hand. Just before I thought I must rise and take it from her, she lifted it again to her lips.

“His true name was Joseph,” she said softly, releasing the smoke. Wisps of it swirled slowly in a cloud around her head. “So appropriate, I always thought—for he was sold into slavery by his own people.”

“Have you ever seen his face?” I asked suddenly. She shook her head, and ground out the last of the cigarette.

“Nay, but I kent him always,” she said very softly. “He smelled of light.”

JAMIE FRASER sat patiently in the darkness of his barn. It was a small one, with stallage for only half a dozen animals, but soundly built. Rain beat solidly on the roof, and wind whined like a ban-sidhe round the corners, but not a drip came through the shingled roof, and the air inside was warm with the heat of somnolent beasts. Even Gideon was a-nod over his manger, half-chewed hay hanging from the corner of his mouth.

It was past midnight now, and he had been waiting for more than two hours, the pistol loaded and primed, resting on his knee.

There it was; above the rain, he heard the soft grunt of someone pushing at the door, and the rumble as it slid open, admitting a breath of cold rain to mingle with the warmer scents of hay and manure.

He sat still, not moving.

He could see a tall form pause against the lighter black of the rain-drenched night, waiting for his eyes to adapt to the dark within, then throw his weight against the heavy door to open it enough to slip inside.

The man had brought a dark-lantern, not trusting that he could find the necessary bits of harness and apply them in the dark. He drew back the slide and turned the lantern slowly, letting the shaft of light travel over the stalls, one by one. The three horses Jocasta had brought were here, but done in. Jamie heard the man click his tongue softly in consideration, turning the light back and forth between the mare, Jerusha, and Gideon.

Making up his mind, Ulysses set the lantern on the floor, and made to pull the pin fastening the door to Gideon’s stall.

“It would serve ye right, and I let ye take him,” Jamie said conversationally.

The butler let out a sharp yelp and whirled round, glaring, his fists clenched. He couldn’t see Jamie in the dark, but the evidence of his ears caught up with him a second later, and he breathed deeply and lowered his fists, realizing who it was.

“Mr. Fraser,” he said. His eyes were live in the lantern light, and watchful. “You took me by surprise.”

“Well, I did intend to,” Jamie replied equably. “Ye mean to be off, I suppose.”

He could see thoughts flit through the butler’s eyes, quick as dragonflies, wondering, calculating. But Ulysses was no fool, and came to the correct conclusion.

“The girl’s told you, then,” he said, quite calmly. “Shall you kill me—for your aunt’s honor?” Had that last been said with any trace of a sneer, Jamie might have killed him indeed—he’d been of two minds on the matter while he waited. But it was said simply, and Jamie’s finger eased on the trigger.

“If I were a younger man, I would,” he said, matching Ulysses’s tone. And if I did not have a wife and daughter who once called a black man friend.

“As it is,” he went on, lowering the pistol, “I try not to kill these days unless I must.” Or until I must. “Do ye offer me denial? For I think there can be nay defense.”

The butler shook his head slightly. The light gleamed on his skin, dark, with a reddish undertone that made him look as though carved from aged cinnabar.

“I loved her,” he said softly, and spread his hands. “Kill me.” He was dressed for traveling, in cloak and hat, with a pouch and canteen hung at his belt, but no knife. Slaves, even trusted ones, dared not go armed.

Curiosity warred with distaste, and—as usual in such warfare—curiosity won.

“Phaedre said ye lay with my aunt, even before her husband died. Is that true?”

“It is,” Ulysses said softly, his expression unreadable. “I do not justify it. I cannot. But I loved her, and if I must die for that . . .”

Jamie believed the man; his sincerity was evident in voice and gesture. And knowing his aunt as he did, he was less inclined to blame Ulysses than the world at large would be. At the same time, he was not letting down his guard; Ulysses was good-size, and quick. And a man who thought he had nothing to lose was very dangerous indeed.

“Where did ye mean to go?” he asked with a nod toward the horses.

“Virginia,” the black man replied with a barely perceptible hesitation. “Lord Dunsmore has offered freedom to any slave who will join his army.”

He hadn’t meant to ask, though it was a question that had raised itself in his mind from the moment he heard Phaedre’s story. With this opening, though, he could not resist.

“Why did she not free you?” he asked. “After Hector Cameron died?”

“She did” was the surprising answer. The butler touched the breast of his coat. “She wrote the papers of manumission nearly twenty years ago—she said she could not bear to think that I came to her bed only because I must. But a request for manumission must be approved by the Assembly, you know. And if I had been openly freed, I could not have stayed to serve her as I did.” That was true enough; a freed slave was compelled to leave the colony within ten days or risk being enslaved again, by anyone who chose to take him; the vision of large gangs of free Negroes roaming the countryside was one that made the Council and Assembly shit themselves with fear.

The butler looked down for a moment, eyes hooded against the light.

“I could choose Jo—or freedom. I chose her.”

“Aye, verra romantic,” Jamie said with extreme dryness—though in fact, he was not unaffected by the statement. Jocasta MacKenzie had married for duty, and duty again—and he thought she had had little happiness in any of her marriages until finding some measure of contentment with Duncan. He was shocked at her choice, disapproving of her adultery, and very angry indeed at her deception of Duncan, but some part of him—the MacKenzie part, doubtless—could not but admire her boldness in taking happiness where she could.

He sighed deeply. The rain was easing now; the thundering on the roof had dwindled to a soft pattering.

“Well, then. I have one question more.”

Ulysses inclined his head gravely, in a gesture Jamie had seen a thousand times. At your service, sir, it said—and that was done with more irony than there was in anything the man had said.

“Where is the gold?”

Ulysses’s head jerked up, eyes wide with startlement. For the first time, Jamie felt a shred of doubt.

“You think I took it?” the butler said incredulously. But then his mouth twisted to one side. “I suppose you would, after all.” He rubbed a hand under his nose, looking worried and unhappy—as well he might, Jamie reflected.

They stood regarding each other in silence for some time, at an impasse. Jamie did not have the feeling that the other was attempting to deceive him—and God knew the man was good at that, he thought cynically.

At last, Ulysses heaved his wide shoulders, and let them drop in helplessness.

“I cannot prove that I did not,” he said. “I can offer nothing save my word of honor—and I am not entitled to have such a thing.” For the first time, bitterness rang in his voice.

Jamie suddenly felt very tired. The horses and mules had long since gone back to their drowse, and he wanted nothing so much as his own bed, and his wife beside him. He also wanted Ulysses to be gone, long before Duncan discovered his perfidy. And while Ulysses was patently the most obvious person to have taken the gold, the fact remained that he could have taken it anytime in the last twenty years, with a good deal less danger. Why now?

“Will ye swear on my aunt’s head?” he asked abruptly. Ulysses’s eyes were sharp, shining in the lantern light, but steady.

“Yes,” he said at last, quietly. “I do so swear.”

Jamie was about to dismiss him, when one last thought occurred to him.

“Do you have children?” he asked.

Indecision crossed the chiseled face; surprise and wariness, mingled with something else.

“None I would claim,” he said at last, and Jamie saw what it was—scorn, mixed with shame. His jaw tensed, and his chin rose slightly. “Why do you ask me that?”

Jamie met his gaze for a moment, thinking of Brianna growing heavy with child.

“Because,” he said at last, “it is only the hope of betterment for my children, and theirs, that gives me the courage to do what must be done here.” Ulysses’s face had gone blank; it gleamed black and impassive in the light.

“If you have no stake in the future, you have no reason to suffer for it. Such children as you may have—”

“They are slaves, born of slave women. What can they be, to me?” Ulysses’s hands were clenched, pressed against his thighs.

“Then go,” Jamie said softly, and stood aside, gesturing toward the door with the barrel of his pistol. “Die free, at least.”

111

JANUARY TWENTY-FIRST

January 21, 1776

JANUARY 21 WAS THE COLDEST DAY of the year. Snow had fallen a few days before, but now the air was like cut crystal, the dawn sky so pale it looked white, and the packed snow chirped like crickets under our boots. Snow, snow-shrouded trees, the icicles that hung from the eaves of the house—the whole world seemed blue with cold. All of the stock had been put up the night before in stable or barn, with the exception of the white sow, who appeared to be hibernating under the house.

I peered dubiously at the small, melted hole in the crust of snow that marked the sow’s entrance; long, stertorous snores were audible inside, and a faint warmth emanated from the hole.

“Come along, mo nighean. Yon creature wouldna notice if the house fell down atop her.” Jamie had come down from feeding the animals in the stable, and was hovering impatiently behind me, chafing his hands in the big blue mittens Bree had knitted for him.

“What, not even if it was on fire?” I said, thinking of Lamb’s “Essay on Roast Pork.” But I turned obligingly to follow him down the trampled path past the side of the house, then slowly, slipping on the icy patches, across the wide clearing toward Bree and Roger’s cabin.

“Ye’re sure the hearth fire’s out?” Jamie asked, for the third time. His breath wreathed round his head like a veil as he looked over his shoulder at me. He had lost his woolen cap hunting, and instead had a woolly white muffler wrapped around his ears and tied on top of his head, the long ends flopping, which made him look absurdly like an enormous rabbit.

“It is,” I assured him, suppressing an urge to laugh at sight of him. His long nose was pink with cold, and twitched suspiciously, and I buried my face in my own muffler, making small snorting noises that emerged as puffs of white, like a steam engine.

“And the bedroom candle? The wee lamp in your surgery?”

“Yes,” I assured him, emerging from the depths of the muffler. My eyes were watering and I would have liked to wipe them, but I had a huge bundle in one arm and a covered basket hung on the other. This contained Adso, who had been forcibly removed from the house, and wasn’t pleased about it; small growls emerged from the basket, and it swayed and thumped against my leg.

“And the rush dip in the pantry, and the candle in the wall sconce in the hall, and the brazier in your office, and the fish-oil lantern you use in the stables. I went over the whole house with a nit comb. Not a spark anywhere.”

“Well enough, then,” he said—but couldn’t help an uneasy glance backward at the house. I looked, too; it looked cold and forlorn, the white of its boards rather grimy against the pristine snow.

“It won’t be an accident,” I said. “Not unless the white sow is playing with matches in her den.”

That made him smile, in spite of the circumstances. Frankly, at the moment, the circumstances struck me as slightly absurd; the whole world seemed deserted, frozen solid and immobile under a winter sky. Nothing seemed less likely than that cataclysm could descend to destroy the house by fire. Still . . . better safe than sorry. And as Jamie had remarked more than once during the years since Roger and Bree had brought word of that sinister newspaper clipping, “If ye ken the house is meant to burn down on a certain day, why would ye be standing in it?”

So we weren’t standing in it. Mrs. Bug had been told to stay at home, and Amy McCallum and her two little boys were already at Brianna’s cabin—puzzled, but obliging. If Himself said that no one was to set foot in the house until dawn tomorrow . . . well, then, there was nothing more to be said, was there?

Ian had been up since before dawn, chopping kindling and hauling in firewood from the shed; everyone would be snug and warm.

Jamie himself had been up all night, tending stock, dispersing his armory—there was not a grain of gunpowder anywhere in the house, either—and prowling restlessly upstairs and down, alert to every cracking ember on a hearth, every burning candle flame, any faint noise without that might portend the approach of an enemy. The only thing he hadn’t done was to sit on the roof with a wet sack, keeping a suspicious eye out for lightning—and that, only because it had been a cloudless night, the stars immense and bright overhead, burning in the frozen void.

I hadn’t slept a great deal, either, disturbed equally by Jamie’s prowling and by vivid dreams of conflagration.

The only conflagration visible, though, was the one sending a welcome shower of smoke and sparks from Brianna’s chimney, and we opened the door to the grateful warmth of a roaring hearth and a number of bodies.

Aidan and Orrie, roused in the dark and dragged through the cold, had promptly crawled into Jemmy’s trundle, and the three little boys were sound asleep, curled up like hedgehogs beneath their quilt. Amy was helping Bree with the breakfast; savory smells of porridge and bacon rose from the hearth.

“Is all well, ma’am?” Amy hurried over to take the big bundle I had brought—this contained my medical chest, the more scarce and valuable herbs from my surgery—and the sealed jar with the latest shipment of white phosphorus that Lord John had sent as a farewell present to Brianna.

“It is,” I assured her, setting Adso’s basket on the floor. I yawned, and eyed the bed wistfully, but set about to stow my chest in the lean-to pantry, where the children wouldn’t get into it. I put the phosphorus on the highest shelf, well back from the edge, and moved a large cheese in front of it, just in case.

Jamie had divested himself of cloak and rabbit ears, and handing Roger the fowling piece, shot pouch, and powder horn he’d carried, was stamping snow from his boots. I saw him glance round the cabin, counting heads, then, at last, draw a small breath, nodding to himself. All safe, so far.

The morning passed peacefully. Breakfast eaten and cleared away, Amy, Bree, and I settled down by the fire with an enormous heap of mending. Adso, tail still twitching with indignation, had taken up a place on a high shelf, from whence he glared at Rollo, who had taken over the trundle bed when the boys got out of it.

Aidan and Jemmy, each now the proud possessor of two vrooms, drove them over hearthstones, under the bed, and through our feet, but for the most part, refrained from punching each other or stepping on Orrie, who was sitting placidly under the table gnawing on a piece of toast. Jamie, Roger, and Ian took turns going outside to pace back and forth and stare at the Big House, deserted in the shelter of the snow-dusted spruce.

As Roger came back from one of these expeditions, Brianna looked up suddenly from the sock she was darning.

“What?” he said, seeing her face.

“Oh.” She had paused, needle halfway through the sock, and now looked down, completing her stitch. “Nothing. Just a—just a thought.”

The tone of her voice made Jamie, who had been frowning his way through a battered copy of Evelina, look up.

“What sort of thought was that, a nighean?” he asked, his radar quite as good as Roger’s.

“Er . . . well.” She bit her lower lip, but then blurted, “What if it’s this house?”

That froze everyone except the little boys, who continued crawling industriously around the room and over bed and table, screeching and vrooming.

“It could be, couldn’t it?” Bree looked round, from rooftree to hearth. “All the—the prophecy said”—with an awkward nod toward Amy McCallum—“was the home of James Fraser would burn. But this was your home, to start with. And it’s not like there’s a street address. It just said, On Fraser’s Ridge.”

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