An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 142

   

As you love me, Mam, please go to her and ask her to come as quickly as may be.

Your most affectionate daughter,

Marsali

I set down the letter. I fear my inability to communicate the horror of our situation. No, she’d done that, all right.

Sleep apnea, they called it; the tendency to stop breathing suddenly when asleep. It was common—and much more common in some sorts of dwarfism, where the respiratory airways were constricted by the skeletal abnormalities. Most people who had it would wake themselves, thrashing and snorting as they breathed again. But the enlarged adenoids and tonsils obstructing his throat—probably a hereditary problem, I thought distractedly, for I’d noted them in Germain and to a lesser extent in the girls, as well—would aggravate the difficulty, since even if the reflex that causes a person short of oxygen to breathe kicked in belatedly, Henri-Christian likely couldn’t draw the immediate deep breath that would waken him.

The vision of Marsali and Fergus—and probably Germain—taking it in turns to sit up in a dark house, watching the little boy sleep, perhaps nodding off themselves in the cold and quiet, jerking awake in terror lest he have shifted in his sleep and stopped breathing… A sick knot of fear had formed under my ribs, reading the letter.

Laoghaire was watching me, blue eyes direct under her cap. For once, the anger, hysteria, and suspicion with which she had always regarded me was gone.

“If ye’ll go,” she said, and swallowed, “I’ll give up the money.”

I stared at her.

“You think that I—” I began incredulously, but stopped. Well, yes, she plainly did believe I would require to be bribed. She thought that I had abandoned Jamie after Culloden, returning only when he had become prosperous again. I struggled with the urge to try to tell her… but that was pointless, and quite beside the point now, too. The situation was clear and sharp as broken glass.

She leaned forward abruptly, her hands on the desk, pressed down so hard that her fingernails were white.

“Please,” she said. “Please.”

I was conscious of strong, conflicting urges: on the one hand, to smack her, and on the other, to put a sympathetic hand over hers. I fought down both and forced myself to think calmly for a moment.

I would go, of course; I’d have to. It had nothing to do with Laoghaire, or with what lay between us. If I did not go, and Henri-Christian died—he well might—I’d never be able to live with myself. If I came in time, I could save him; no one else could. It was as simple as that.

My heart sank precipitously at the thought of leaving Lallybroch now. How horrible; how could I, knowing that I left Ian for the last time, perhaps leaving them all and the place itself for the last time. But even as I thought these things, the part of my mind that was a surgeon had already grasped the necessity and was setting about the business of planning the quickest way to Philadelphia, contemplating how I should acquire what I needed once there, the possible obstructions and complications that might arise—all the practical analysis of how I should do what had so suddenly been asked of me.

And as my mind clicked through these things, the ruthless logic overwhelming shock, subduing emotion, it began to dawn upon me that this sudden disaster might have other aspects.

Laoghaire was waiting, eyes fixed on me, her mouth firm, willing me to do it.

“All right,” I said, leaning back in my chair and fixing her in turn with a level look. “Let’s come to terms, then, shall we?”

“SO,” I SAID, eyes fixed on the flight of a gray heron as it crossed the loch, “we made a bargain. I’ll go to Philadelphia as quickly as I can to take care of Henri-Christian. She’ll marry Joey, give up the alimony—and give her permission for Joan to go to the convent. Though I suppose we’d best get it in writing, just in case.”

Jamie stared at me, speechless. We were sitting in the long rough grass at the side of the loch, where I’d brought him to tell him what had happened—and what was going to happen.

“She—Laoghaire—has kept Joan’s dowry intact; Joan will have that, for traveling and for her entry to the convent,” I added. I took a deep breath, hoping to keep my voice steady. “I’m thinking that—well, Michael will be leaving in a few days. Joan and I could go with him to France; I could sail from there on a French ship, and he could see her safely to her convent.”

“You—” he began, and I reached to squeeze his hand, to stop him speaking.

“You can’t go now, Jamie,” I said softly. “I know you can’t.”

He closed his eyes, grimacing, and his hand tightened on mine in instinctive denial of the obvious. I clung to his fingers just as tightly, in spite of the fact that it was his tender right hand I held. The thought of being parted from him for any amount of time or space—let alone the Atlantic Ocean and the months it might take before we saw each other again—made the bottom of my stomach fall away and filled me with desolation and a sense of vague terror.

He would go with me if I asked—if I even gave him room for doubt about what he must do. I must not.

He needed this so much. Needed what small time remained with Ian; needed even more to be here for Jenny when Ian died, for he could be her comfort in a way that not even her children could be. And if he had needed to go and see Laoghaire out of guilt over the failure of their marriage—how much more acute would be his guilt at abandoning his sister, yet again, and in her most desperate time of need.

“You can’t leave,” I whispered, urgent. “I know, Jamie.”

He opened his eyes then and looked at me, eyes dark with anguish.

“I canna let ye go. Not without me.”

“It… won’t be long,” I said, forcing the words past the lump in my throat—a lump that acknowledged both my sorrow in parting from him and the greater sorrow for the reason why our separation wouldn’t be a long one.

“I’ve gone farther by myself, after all,” I said, trying to smile. His mouth moved, wanting to respond, but the trouble in his eyes didn’t change.

I lifted his crippled hand to my lips and kissed it, pressed my cheek against it, my head turned away—but a tear ran down my cheek and I knew he felt the wetness of it on his hand, for his other hand reached for me and drew me into him, and we sat pressed together for a long, long time, listening to the wind that stirred the grass and touched the water. The heron had set down at the far side of the loch and stood on one leg, waiting patiently amid the tiny ripples.

“We’ll need a lawyer,” I said at last, not moving. “Is Ned Gowan still alive?”

MUCH TO MY astonishment, Ned Gowan was still alive. How old could he possibly be? I wondered, looking at him. Eighty-five? Ninety? He was toothless and wrinkled as a crumpled paper bag, but still jaunty as a cricket, and with his lawyer’s bloodlust quite intact.

He had drawn up the agreement of annulment for the marriage between Jamie and Laoghaire, cheerfully arranging the annual payments to Laoghaire, the dowries for Marsali and Joan. He set himself now just as cheerfully to dismantling it.

“Now, the question of Mistress Joan’s dowry,” he said, thoughtfully licking the point of his quill. “You specified, sir, in the original document, that this amount—may I say, this very generous amount—was to be endowed upon the young woman upon the occasion of her marriage and to remain her sole property thereafter, not passing to her husband.”

“Aye, that’s right,” Jamie said, not very patiently. He’d told me privately that he would prefer to be staked out naked on an anthill than to have to deal with a lawyer for more than five minutes, and we had been dealing with the complications of this agreement for a good hour. “So?”

“So she is not marrying,” Mr. Gowan explained, with the indulgence due to someone not very bright but still worthy of respect by reason of the fact that he was paying the lawyer’s fee. “The question of whether she can receive the dowry under this contract—”

“She is marrying,” Jamie said. “She’s becoming a Bride o’ Christ, ye ignorant Protestant.”

I glanced at Ned in some surprise, having never heard that he was a Protestant, but he made no demur at this. Mr. Gowan, sharp as ever, noticed my surprise and smiled at me, eyes twinkling.

“I have no religion save the law, ma’am,” he said. “Observance of one form of ritual over another is irrelevant; God to me is the personification of Justice, and I serve Him in that guise.”

Jamie made a Scottish noise deep in his throat in response to this sentiment.

“Aye, and a fat lot o’ good that will do ye, and your clients here ever realize ye’re no a papist.”

Mr. Gowan’s small dark eyes did not cease to twinkle as he turned them on Jamie.

“I am sure ye dinna suggest such a low thing as blackmail, sir? Why, I hesitate even to name that honorable Scottish institution, knowing as I do the nobility of your character—and the fact that ye’re no going to get this bloody contract done without me.”

Jamie sighed deeply and settled into his chair.

“Aye, get on with it. What’s to do about the dowry, then?”

“Ah.” Mr. Gowan turned with alacrity to the matter at hand. “I have spoken with the young woman regarding her own wishes in the matter. As the original maker of the contract, you may—with the consent of the other signatory, which, I understand, has been given”—he uttered a dry little cough at this oblique mention of Laoghaire—“alter the terms of the original document. Since, as I say, Mistress Joan does not propose to wed, do you wish to rescind the dowry altogether, to keep the existing terms, or to alter them in some way?”

“I want to give the money to Joan,” Jamie said, with an air of relief at finally being asked something concrete.

“Absolutely?” Mr. Gowan inquired, pen poised. “The word ‘absolutely’ having a meaning in law other than—”

“Ye said ye talked to Joan. What the devil does she want, then?”

Mr. Gowan looked happy, as he usually did upon perceiving a new complication.

“She wishes to accept only a small portion of the original dowry, this to be used to provide for her reception into a convent; such a donation is customary, I believe.”

“Aye?” Jamie raised one eyebrow. “And what about the rest?”

“She wishes the residue to be given to her mother, Laoghaire MacKenzie Fraser, but not given absolutely, if you follow me. Given with conditions.”

Jamie and I exchanged looks.

“What conditions?” he asked carefully.

Mr. Gowan held up a withered hand, folding down the fingers as he enumerated the conditions.

“One, that the money shall not be released until a proper record of the marriage of Laoghaire MacKenzie Fraser and Joseph Boswell Murray shall be written in the parish register of Broch Mordha, witnessed and attested by a priest. Two, that a contract be signed, reserving and guaranteeing the estate of Balriggan and all its inclusive goods as the sole property of Laoghaire MacKenzie Fraser until her death, thereafter being willed as the aforesaid Laoghaire MacKenzie Fraser shall so dispose in a proper will. Thirdly, the money shall not be given absolutely, but shall be retained by a trustee and disbursed in the amount of twenty pounds per annum, paid jointly to the aforesaid Laoghaire MacKenzie Fraser and Joseph Boswell Murray. Fourth, that these annual payments shall be used only for matters pertaining to the upkeep and improvement of the estate of Balriggan. Fifth, that payment of each year’s disbursement shall be contingent upon the receipt of proper documentation regarding the use of the previous year’s disbursement.” He folded down his thumb and lowered his closed fist, and held up one finger of his other hand.

“Sixth—and lastly—that one James Alexander Gordon Fraser Murray, of Lallybroch, shall be trustee for these funds. Are these conditions agreeable, sir?”

“They are,” Jamie said firmly, rising to his feet. “Make it so, if ye please, Mr. Gowan—and now, if no one minds, I am going away and having a wee dram. Possibly two.”

Mr. Gowan capped his inkwell, tidied his notes into a neat pile, and likewise rose, though more slowly.

“I’ll join ye in that dram, Jamie. I want to hear about this war of yours in America. It sounds the grandest of adventures!”

COUNTING SHEEP

AS THE TIME GREW SHORTER, Ian found it impossible to sleep. The need to go, to find Rachel, burned in him so that he felt hot coals in the pit of his stomach all of the time. Auntie Claire called it heartburn, and it was. She said it was from bolting his food, though, and it wasn’t that—he could barely eat.

He spent his days with his father, as much as he could. Sitting in the corner of the speak-a-word room, watching his father and his elder brother go about the business of Lallybroch, he couldn’t understand how it would be possible to stand up and walk away, to leave them behind. To leave his father forever behind.

During the days, there were things to be done, folk to be visited, to talk to, and the land to be walked over, the stark beauty of it soothing when his feelings grew too heated to bear. At night, though, the house lay quiet, the creaking silence punctuated by his father’s distant cough and his two young nephews’ heavy breathing in the room beside him. He began to feel the house itself breathe around him, drawing one ragged, heavy-chested gasp after another, and to feel the weight of it on his own chest, so he sat up in bed, gulping air only to be sure he could. And finally he would slide out of bed, steal downstairs with his boots in his hands, and let himself out of the kitchen door to walk the night under clouds or stars, the clean wind fanning the coals of his heart to open flame, until he should find his tears and peace in which to shed them.

One night he found the door unbolted already. He went out cautiously, looking round, but saw no one. Likely Young Jamie gone to the barn; one of the two cows was due to calf any day. He should go and help, maybe … but the burning under his ribs was painful, he needed to walk a bit first. Jamie would have fetched him in any case, had he thought he needed help.

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