An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 58

   

“To be honest, I hadn’t paid it much mind—not ’til now.”

Menzies nodded again, as though to himself, then took off his spectacles and rubbed at the marks they’d left on the bridge of his nose. His eyes were pale blue and seemed suddenly vulnerable, without the protection of his glasses.

“It’s been on the decline for a number of years. Much more so for the last ten, fifteen years. The Highlands are suddenly part of the UK—or at least the rest of the UK says so—in a way they’ve never been before, and keeping a separate language is seen as not only old-fashioned but outright destructive.

“It’s no what you’d call a written policy, to stamp it out, but the use of Gaelic is strongly… discouraged… in schools. Mind”—he raised a hand to forestall Roger’s response—“they couldn’t get away with that if the parents protested, but they don’t. Most of them are eager for their kids to be part of the modern world, speak good English, get good jobs, fit in elsewhere, be able to leave the Highlands… Not so much for them here, is there, save the North Sea?”

“The parents…”

“If they’ve learnt the Gaelic from their own parents, they deliberately don’t teach it to their kids. And if they haven’t got it, they certainly make no effort to learn. It’s seen as backward, ignorant. Very much a mark of the lower classes.”

“Barbarous, in fact,” Roger said, with an edge. “The barbarous Erse?”

Menzies recognized Samuel Johnson’s dismissive description of the tongue spoken by his eighteenth-century Highland hosts, and the brief, rueful smile lit his face again.

“Exactly. There’s a great deal of prejudice—much of it outspoken—against…”

“Teuchters?” “Teuchter” was a Lowland Scots term for someone in the Gaeltacht, the Gaelic-speaking Highlands, and in cultural terms the general equivalent of “hillbilly” or “trailer trash.”

“Oh, ye do know, then.”

“Something.” It was true; even as recently as the sixties, Gaelic speakers had been viewed with a certain derision and public dismissiveness, but this… Roger cleared his throat.

“Regardless, Mr. Menzies,” he said, coming down a bit on the “Mr.,” “I object very much to my son’s teacher not only disciplining him for speaking Gaelic but actually assaulting him for doing so.”

“I share your concern, Mr. MacKenzie,” Menzies said, looking up and meeting his eyes in a way that made it seem as though he truly did. “I’ve had a wee word with Miss Glendenning, and I think it won’t happen again.”

Roger held his gaze for moment, wanting to say all sorts of things but realizing that Menzies was not responsible for most of them.

“If it does,” he said evenly, “I won’t come back with a shotgun—but I will come back with the sheriff. And a newspaper photographer, to document Miss Glendenning being taken off in handcuffs.”

Menzies blinked once and put his spectacles back on.

“You’re sure ye wouldn’t rather send your wife round with the family shotgun?” he asked wistfully, and Roger laughed, despite himself.

“Fine, then.” Menzies pushed back his chair and stood up. “I’ll see ye out; I’ve got to lock up. We’ll see Jem on the Monday, then, will we?”

“He’ll be here. With or without handcuffs.”

Menzies laughed.

“Well, he needn’t worry about his reception. Since the Gaelic-speaking kids did tell their friends what it was he said, and he took his belting without a squeak, I think his entire form now regards him as Robin Hood or Billy Jack.”

“Oh, God.”

SHIPS THAT PASS IN THE NIGHT

May 19, 1777

THE SHARK WAS EASILY twelve feet long, a dark, sinuous shape keeping pace with the ship, barely visible through the storm-stirred gray waters. It had appeared abruptly just before noon, startling me badly when I looked over the rail and saw its fin cut the surface.

“What’s amiss with its head?” Jamie, appearing in response to my startled cry, frowned into the dark water. “It has a growth of some sort.”

“I think it’s what they call a hammerhead.” I clung tight to the railing, slippery with spray. The head did look misshapen: a queer, clumsy, blunt thing at the end of such a sinisterly graceful body. As we watched, though, the shark came closer to the surface and rolled, bringing one fleshy stalk and its distant cold eye momentarily clear of the water.

Jamie made a sound of horrified disgust.

“They normally look like that,” I informed him.

“Why?”

“I suppose God was feeling bored one day.” That made him laugh, and I viewed him with approval. His color was high and healthy, and he’d eaten breakfast with such appetite that I’d felt I could dispense with the acupuncture needles.

“What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen? An animal, I mean. A non-human animal,” I added, thinking of Dr. Fentiman’s ghastly collection of pickled deformities and “natural curiosities.”

“Strange by itself? Not deformed, I mean, but as God meant it to be?” He squinted into the sea, thinking, then grinned. “The mandrill in Louis of France’s zoo. Or … well, no. Maybe a rhinoceros, though I havena seen one of those in the flesh. Does that count?”

“Let’s say something you’ve seen in the flesh,” I said, thinking of a few pictorial animals I’d seen in this time that appeared to have been deeply affected by the artist’s imagination. “You thought the mandrill was stranger than the orangutan?” I recalled his fascination with the orangutan, a solemn-faced young animal who had seemed equally fascinated by him, this leading to a number of jokes regarding the origins of red hair on the part of the Duc d’Orleans, who’d been present.

“Nay, I’ve seen a good many people who looked stranger than the orangutan,” he said. The wind had shifted, yanking auburn lashings of hair out of his ribbon. He turned to face into the breeze and smoothed them back, sobering a little. “I felt sorry for the creature; it seemed to ken it was alone and might never see another of its kind again.”

“Maybe it did think you were one of its kind,” I suggested. “It seemed to like you.”

“It was a sweet wee thing,” he agreed. “When I gave it an orange, it took the fruit from my hand like a Christian, verra mannerly. Do ye suppose…” His voice died away, his eyes going vague.

“Do I suppose … ?”

“Oh. I was only thinking”—he glanced quickly over his shoulder, but we were out of earshot of the sailors—“what Roger Mac said about France being important to the Revolution. I thought I should ask about, when we’re in Edinburgh. See whether there might be any of the folk I knew who had fingers in France…” He lifted one shoulder.

“You aren’t actually thinking of going to France, are you?” I asked, suddenly wary.

“No, no,” he said hurriedly. “I only happened to think—if by some chance we did, might the orangutan still be there? It’s been a great while, but I dinna ken how long they live.”

“Not quite as long as people, I don’t think, but they can live to a great age, if they’re well cared for,” I said dubiously. The doubt was not all on the orangutan’s account. Go back to the French court? The mere thought made my stomach flip-flop.

“He’s dead, ken,” Jamie said quietly. He turned his head to look at me, eyes steady. “Louis.”

“Is he?” I said blankly. “I… when?”

He ducked his head and made a small noise that might have been a laugh.

“He died three years ago, Sassenach,” he said dryly. “It was in the papers. Though I grant ye, the Wilmington Gazette didna make a great deal of the matter.”

“I didn’t notice.” I glanced down at the shark, still patiently keeping company with the ship. My heart, after the initial leap of surprise, had relaxed. My general reaction, in fact, was thankfulness—and that in itself surprised me, rather.

I’d come to terms with my memory of sharing Louis’s bed—for the ten minutes it had taken—long since, and Jamie and I had long since come to terms with each other, turning to each other in the wake of the loss of our first daughter, Faith, and all the terrible things that had happened in France before the Rising.

It wasn’t that hearing of Louis’s death made any real difference at all—but still, I had a feeling of relief, as though some tiresome bit of music that had been playing in the far distance had finally come to a graceful end, and now the silence of peace sang to me in the wind.

“God rest his soul,” I said, rather belatedly. Jamie smiled, and laid his hand over mine.

“ Fois shìorruidh thoir dha,” he echoed. God rest his soul. “Makes ye wonder, ken? How it might be for a king, to come before God and answer for your life. Might it be a great deal worse, I mean, having to answer for all the folk under your care?”

“Do you think he would?” I asked, intrigued—and rather uneasy at the thought. I hadn’t known Louis in any intimate way—bar the obvious, and that seemed less intimate than a handshake; he’d never even met my eyes—but he hadn’t seemed like a man consumed by care for his subjects. “Can a person really be held to account for the welfare of a whole kingdom? Not just his own peccadilloes, you think?”

He considered that seriously, the stiff fingers of his right hand tapping slowly on the slippery rail.

“I think so,” he said. “Ye’d answer for what ye’d done to your family, no? Say ye’d done ill by your children, abandoned them or left them to starve. Surely that would weigh against your soul, for you’re responsible for them. If you’re born a king, then ye’re given responsibility for your subjects. If ye do ill by them, then—”

“Well, but where does that stop?” I protested. “Suppose you do well by one person and badly by another? Suppose you have people under your care—so to speak—and their needs are in opposition to one another? What do you say to that?”

He broke into a smile.

“I’d say I’m verra glad I’m not God and havena got to try to reckon such things.”

I was silent for a moment, imagining Louis standing before God, trying to explain those ten minutes with me. I was sure he’d thought he had a right—kings, after all, were kings—but on the other hand, both the seventh and the ninth commandments were fairly explicit and didn’t seem to have any clauses exempting royalty.

“If you were there,” I said impulsively, “in heaven, watching that judgment—would you forgive him? I would.”

“Who?” he said, surprised. “Louis?” I nodded, and he frowned, rubbing a finger slowly down the bridge of his nose. Then he sighed and nodded.

“Aye, I would. Wouldna mind watching him squirm a bit first, mind,” he added, darkly. “A wee pitchfork in the arse would be fine.”

I laughed at that, but before I could say anything further, we were interrupted by a shout of “Sail, ho!” from above. While we’d been alone the instant before, this advice caused sailors to pop out of hatches and companionways like weevils out of a ship’s biscuit, swarming up into the rigging to see what was up.

I strained my eyes, but nothing was immediately visible. Young Ian, though, had gone aloft with the others, and now landed on the deck beside us with a thump. He was flushed with wind and excitement.

“A smallish ship, but she’s got guns,” he told Jamie. “And she’s flying the Union flag.”

“She’s a naval cutter,” said Captain Roberts, who had appeared on my other side and was peering grimly through his telescope. “Shit.”

Jamie’s hand went to his dirk, unconsciously checking, and he looked over the captain’s shoulder, eyes narrowed against the wind. I could see the sail now, coming up rapidly to starboard.

“Can we outrun her, Cap’n?” The first mate had joined the crowd at the rail, watching the oncoming ship. She did have guns; six, that I could see—and there were men behind them.

The captain pondered, absently clicking his glass open and shut, then glanced up into the rigging, presumably estimating the chances of our putting on enough sail to outdistance the pursuer. The mainmast was cracked; he’d been intending to replace it in New Haven.

“No,” he said gloomily. “The main’ll be away, if there’s any strain put on her.” He shut the telescope with a decisive click and stowed it away in his pocket. “Have to brass it out, best we can.”

I wondered just how much of Captain Roberts’s cargo was contraband. His taciturn face didn’t give anything away, but there was a distinct air of uneasiness among the hands, which grew noticeably as the cutter drew alongside, hailing.

Roberts gave the terse order to heave to, and the sails loosened, the ship slowing. I could see seamen at the guns and rail of the cutter; glancing sideways at Jamie, I saw that he was counting them and glanced back.

“I make it sixteen,” Ian said, low-voiced.

“Undermanned, God damn it,” said the captain. He looked at Ian, estimating his size, and shook his head. “They’ll likely mean to press what they can out of us. Sorry, lad.”

The rather formless alarm I’d felt at the cutter’s approach sharpened abruptly at this—and sharpened still further as I saw Roberts glance appraisingly at Jamie.

“You don’t think they—” I began.

“Shame you shaved this morning, Mr. Fraser,” Roberts observed to Jamie, ignoring me. “Takes twenty years off your age. And you look a damned sight healthier than men half your age.”

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