Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 101

   

I wound wool in silence, listening to the crackle of the fire. Ian was coughing again, but didn’t wake. The dog had moved, and was now curled up by his legs, a dark heap of fur.

I finished the second ball of yarn and began another. One more, and the infusion would have finished steeping. If Ian didn’t need me yet, I would lie down then.

Grey had been silent for so long that I was surprised when he started to speak again. When I glanced at him, he wasn’t looking at me, but was staring upward, seeking visions once again among the smoke-stained beams.

“I told you I had feelings for my wife,” he said softly. “I did. Affection. Familiarity. Loyalty. We had known each other all her life; our fathers had been friends; I had known her brother. She might well have been my sister.”

“And was she satisfied with that—to be your sister?”

He gave me a glance somewhere between anger and interest.

“You cannot be at all a comfortable woman to live with.” He shut his mouth, but couldn’t leave it there. He shrugged impatiently. “Yes, I believe she was satisfied with the life she led. She never said that she was not.”

I didn’t reply to this, though I exhaled rather strongly through my nose. He shrugged uncomfortably, and scratched his collarbone.

“I was an adequate husband to her,” he said defensively. “That we had no children of our own—that was not my—”

“I really don’t want to hear about it!”

“Oh, don’t you?” His voice was still low, not to wake Ian, but it had lost the smooth modulations of diplomacy; the anger was rough in it.

“You asked me why I came; you questioned my motives; you accused me of jealousy. Perhaps you don’t want to know, because if you did, you could not keep thinking of me as you choose to.”

“And how the hell do you know what I choose to think of you?”

His mouth twisted in an expression that might have been a sneer on a less handsome face.

“Don’t I?”

I looked him full in the face for a minute, not troubling to hide anything at all.

“You did mention jealousy,” he said quietly, after a moment.

“So I did. So did you.”

He turned his head away, but continued after a moment.

“When I heard that Isobel was dead…it meant nothing to me. We had lived together for years, though we had not seen each other for nearly two years. We shared a bed; we shared a life, I thought. I should have cared. But I didn’t.”

He took a deep breath; I saw the bedclothes stir as he settled himself.

“You mentioned generosity. It wasn’t that. I came to see…whether I can still feel,” he said. His head was still turned away, staring at the hide-covered window, grown dark with the night. “Whether it is my own feelings that have died, or only Isobel.”

“Only Isobel?” I echoed.

He lay quite still for a moment, facing away.

“I can still feel shame, at least,” he said, very softly.

I could tell by the feel of the night that it was very late; the fire had burned low, and the aching of my muscles told me that it was well past my bedtime.

Ian was getting restless; he stirred in his sleep, moaning, and Rollo got up and nuzzled him, making small whimpering noises. I went to him and wiped his face again, plumped his pillow and straightened his sheets, making comforting murmurs. He was no more than half awake; I held his head and fed him a cup of the warm infusion, sip by sip.

“You’ll feel better in the morning.” There were spots visible in the open neck of his shirt—only a few as yet—but the fever was less, and the line between his brows had eased.

I wiped his face once more and eased him back on his pillow, where he turned a cheek to the cool linen and fell asleep again at once.

There was plenty of the infusion left. I poured another cup and held it out to Lord John. Surprised, he sat upright and took it from me.

“And now that you’ve come, and seen him—do you still have feelings?” I said.

He stared at me for a moment, eyes unblinking in the candlelight.

“I do, yes.” Hand steady as a rock, he picked up the cup and drank. “God help me,” he added, so casual as almost to sound offhand.

Ian passed a bad night but dropped off into a fitful doze near dawn. I seized the chance of a little rest myself, and managed a few hours of delectable sleep on the floor before being roused by the the loud braying of Clarence the mule.

A sociable creature, Clarence was utterly delighted by the approach of anything he regarded as a friend—this category embracing virtually anything on four legs. He gave tongue to his joy in a voice that rang off the mountainside. Rollo, affronted at being thus upstaged in the watchdog department, leapt off Ian’s bed, soared over me, and out through the open window, baying like a werewolf.

Thus startled out of slumber, I staggered to my feet. Lord John, who was sitting in his shirt at the table, looked startled too, though whether at the racket or at my appearance, I couldn’t tell. I went outside, running my fingers hastily through my disheveled locks, heart beating faster in the hope that it might be Jamie returning.

My heart fell as I saw that it wasn’t Jamie and Willie, but my disappointment was quickly replaced by astonishment when I saw who the visitor was—Pastor Gottfried, leader of the Lutheran church in Salem. I had met the Pastor now and then, in the homes of parishioners where I had been paying medical calls, but I was more than surprised to find him so far afield.

It was nearly two days ride from Salem to the Ridge, and the nearest German Lutheran farm was at least fifteen miles away, over rough country. The Pastor was no natural horseman—I could see the mud and dust of repeated falls splashed over his black coat—and I thought that it must be a dire emergency indeed that brought him so far up the mountain.

“Down, wicked dog!” I said sharply to Rollo, who was baring his teeth and growling at the new arrival, much to the displeasure of the Pastor’s horse. “Be quiet, I say!”

Rollo gave me a yellow-eyed look and subsided with an air of offended dignity, as though to suggest that if I wished to welcome obvious malefactors onto the premises, he wouldn’t answer for the consequences.

The Pastor was a tubby little man with a huge, curly gray beard that surrounded his face like a storm cloud, through which his normally beaming face peered like the breaking sun. He wasn’t beaming this morning, though; his round cheeks were the color of suet, puffy lips pale, and his eyes red-rimmed with fatigue.

“Meine Dame,” he greeted me, doffing his broad-brimmed hat and bowing deeply from the waist. “Ist Euer Mann hier?”

I spoke no more than a few words of crude German, but could easily make out that he was looking for Jamie. I shook my head, gesturing vaguely toward the woods, to indicate Jamie’s absence.

The Pastor looked even more dismayed than before, nearly wringing his hands in his distress. He said several urgent things in German, then seeing that I didn’t understand him, repeated himself, speaking slower and louder, his stubby body straining for expression, trying by sheer force of will to make me understand.

I was still shaking my head helplessly when a voice spoke sharply from behind me.

“Was ist los?” demanded Lord John, emerging into the dooryard. “Was habt Ihr gesagt?” He had put on his breeches, I was glad to see, though he was still barefoot, with his fair hair streaming loose on his shoulders.

The Pastor gave me a scandalized look, plainly thinking The Worst, but this expression was wiped off his face at once by a further machine-gun rattle of German from Lord John. The Pastor bobbed in apology to me, then turned eagerly to the Englishman, waving his arms and stammering in his haste to tell his story.

“What?” I said, having failed to pluck more than a word or two from the Teutonic flood. “What on earth is he saying?”

Grey turned a grim face toward me.

“Do you know a family named Mueller?”

“Yes,” I said, immediate alarm flaring at the name. “I delivered a child to Petronella Mueller, three weeks ago.”

“Ah.” Grey licked dry lips and glanced at the ground; he didn’t want to tell me. “The—the child is dead, I am afraid. So is the mother.”

“Oh, no.” I sank down on the bench by the door, swept by a feeling of absolute denial. “No. They can’t be.”

Grey rubbed a hand over his mouth, nodding as the Pastor went on, waving his small, fat hands in agitation.

“He says it was Masern; I think that would be what we call the measle. Flecken, so ähnlich wie diese?” he demanded of the Pastor, pointing at the remnants of rash still visible on his face.

The Pastor nodded emphatically, repeating “Flecken, Masern, ja!” and patting his own cheeks.

“But what does he want Jamie for?” I asked, bewilderment added to distress.

“Apparently he believes Jamie might be able to reason with the man—with Herr Mueller. Are they friends?”

“Not exactly, no. Jamie hit Gerhard Mueller in the mouth and knocked him down in front of the mill last spring.”

A muscle twitched in Lord John’s scabbed cheek.

“I see. I suppose he’s using the term ‘reason with’ rather loosely, then.”

“Mueller can’t be reasoned with by any means more sophisticated than an ax handle,” I said. “But what is he being unreasonable about?”

Grey frowned—he didn’t recognize my use of “sophisticated,” I realized, though he understood what I meant. He hesitated, then turned back to the small minister and asked something else, listening intently to the resulting torrent of Deutsch.

Little by little, with constant interruptions and much gesticulation, the story emerged in translation.

There was, as Lord John had told us earlier, an epidemic of measles in Cross Creek. This had evidently spread into the backcountry; several households in Salem were afflicted, but the Muellers, isolated as they were, had not suffered infection until recently.

However, the day before the first sign of measles appeared, a small band of Indians had stopped at the Mueller farm asking for food and drink. Mueller, with whose opinions of Indians I was thoroughly well acquainted, had driven them off with considerable abuse. The Indians, offended, had made—said Mueller—mysterious signs toward his house as they left.

When measles broke out among the family the next day, Mueller was positive that the disease had been brought upon them by means of a hex, placed on his house by the Indians he had rebuffed. He had at once painted antihexing symbols upon his walls, and summoned the Pastor from Salem to perform an exorcism…“I think that is what he said,” Lord John added doubtfully. “Though I am not sure whether he means by that…”

“Never mind,” I said impatiently. “Go on!”

None of these precautions availed Mueller, though, and when Petronella and the new baby succumbed to the disease, the old man had lost what little mind he had. Vowing revenge upon the savages who had brought such devastation to his household, he had forced his sons and sons-in-law to accompany him, and ridden off into the woods.

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