Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 110

   

…Your grandsire, too. The casual words made her feel suddenly warm, in spite of the cool dimness of the entry hall.

Frank Randall had been an only child, as had her mother; such relatives as she had were not close—only a couple of elderly great-aunts in England, and some long-distant second cousins in Australia. She had set out thinking only to find her father; she hadn’t realized that she might discover a whole new family in the process.

A lot of family. As she entered the hallway, with its scarred paneling, a door opened and four small children ran out, closely pursued by a tall young woman with brown curly hair.

“Ah, run for it, run for it, wee fishies!” she cried, rushing forward with outstretched hands snapping like pincers. “The wicked crab will have ye eaten up, snap, snap!”

The children fled down the hall in a gale of giggles and shrieks, looking back over their shoulders in terrified delight. One of them, a little boy of four or so, saw Brianna and Young Jamie standing in the entry and instantly reversed his direction, charging down the hallway like a runaway locomotive, shouting, “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!”

The boy flung himself recklessly at Young Jamie’s midriff. The latter caught him expertly, and hoisted the beaming little boy in his arms.

“Now, then, wee Matthew,” he said sternly. “What sort of manners is this your auntie Janet’s teachin’ you? What will your new cousin be thinkin’, to see ye dashin’ about wi’ no more sense than a chicken after corn?”

The little boy giggled louder, not at all put off by the scolding. He peeked at Brianna, caught her eye, and promptly buried his face in his father’s shoulder. Slowly he raised his head and peeked again, blue eyes wide.

“Da!” he said. “Is that a lady?”

“Of course she is, I’ve told ye, she’s your cousin.”

“But she’s got on breeks!” Matthew stared at her in shock. “Ladies dinna wear breeks!”

The young woman looked rather as though she subscribed to this opinion as well, but she interrupted firmly, moving to take the little boy from his father.

“Well, and I’m sure she’s a fine reason for it, but it isna proper to be makin’ remarks before people’s faces. You go and get yourself washed, aye?” She set him down and turned him toward the door at the end of the hallway, giving him a gentle push. He didn’t move, but turned back around to stare at Brianna.

“Where’s Grannie, Matt?” his father asked.

“In the back parlor wi’ Grandda and a lady and a man,” Matthew replied promptly. “They’ve had two pots of coffee, a tray of scones, and a whole Dundee cake, but Mama says they’re hangin’ on in hopes of bein’ fed dinner, too, and good luck to them because it’s only brose and a bit o’ hough today, and damned—oop!”—he pressed a hand over his mouth, glancing guiltily at his father—“and drat if she’ll gie them any of the gooseberry tart, no matter how long they stay.”

Young Jamie gave his son a narrow look, then glanced quizzically at his sister. “A lady and a man?”

Janet made a faint moue of distaste.

“The Grizzler and her brother,” she said.

Young Jamie grunted, with a glance at Brianna.

“I imagine Mam will be pleased for an excuse to get away from them, then.” He nodded at Matthew. “Go and fetch your Grannie, lad. Tell her I’ve brought a visitor she’ll like to see. And watch your language, aye?” He turned Matthew toward the back of the house and slapped him gently on the rump in dismissal.

The little boy went, but slowly, casting glances of intense fascination over his shoulder at Brianna as he went.

Young Jamie turned back to Brianna, smiling.

“That’ll be my eldest,” he said. “And this”—gesturing to the young woman, “is my sister, Janet Murray. Janet—Mistress Brianna Fraser.”

Brianna didn’t know whether to offer to shake hands or not, and instead contented herself with a nod and a smile. “I’m very pleased to meet you,” she said warmly.

Janet’s eyes sprang wide with amazement, whether at what Brianna had said or at the accent with which she’d spoken, Brianna couldn’t tell.

Young Jamie grinned at his sister’s surprise.

“You’ll never guess who she is, Jen,” he said. “Never in a thousand years!”

Janet lifted one eyebrow, then narrowed her eyes at Brianna.

“Cousin,” she murmured, looking their guest frankly up and down. “She’s the look o’ the MacKenzies, surely. But she’s a Fraser, ye say…” Her eyes sprang suddenly wide.

“Oh, ye can’t be,” she said to Brianna. A wide smile began to spread across her face, pointing up the family resemblance to her brother. “You can’t be!”

Her brother’s chortle was interrupted by the swish of a swinging door and the sound of light footsteps on the boards of the hallway.

“Aye, Jamie? Mattie says we’ve a guest—” The soft, brisk voice died suddenly, and Brianna looked up, her heart suddenly in her throat.

Jenny Murray was very small—no more than five feet tall—and delicately boned as a sparrow. She stood staring at Brianna, mouth slightly open. Her eyes were the deep blue of gentians, made the more striking by a face gone white as paper.

“Oh, my,” she said softly. “Oh, my.” Brianna smiled tentatively, nodding to her aunt—her mother’s friend, her father’s beloved only sister. Oh, please! she thought, suddenly suffused with a longing as intense as it was unexpected. Please like me, please be happy I’m here!

Young Jamie bowed elaborately to his mother, beaming.

“Mam, might I have the honor to present to ye—”

“Jamie Fraser! I kent he was back—I told ye, Jenny Murray!”

The voice rang out from the back of the hallway in tones of highpitched accusation. Glancing up in startlement, Brianna saw a woman emerging from the shadows, rustling with indignation.

“Amyas Kettrick told me he’d seen your brother riding near Balriggan! But no, ye wouldna have it, would ye, Jenny—telling me I’m a fool, telling me Amyas is blind, and Jamie in America! Liars the both of ye, you and Ian, trying to protect that wicked coward! Hobart!” she shouted, turning toward the back of the house, “Hobart! Come out here this minute!”

“Be quiet!” said Jenny impatiently. “Ye are a fool, Laoghaire!” She jerked at the woman’s sleeve, urging her around. “And as for who’s blind, look at her! Are ye too far past it to tell the difference between a grown man and a lass in breeks, for heaven’s sake?” Her own eyes stayed fixed on Brianna, bright with speculation.

“A lass?”

The other woman turned, frowning nearsightedly at Brianna. Then she blinked once, anger erased as her round face went slack with surprise. She gasped, crossing herself.

“Mary, Margaret and Bride! Who in the name of God are you?”

Brianna took a deep breath, looking from one woman to the other as she answered, trying to keep her voice from shaking.

“My name is Brianna. I’m Jamie Fraser’s daughter.”

Both women’s eyes popped wide. The woman called Laoghaire grew slowly red and seemed to swell, opening and closing her mouth in a futile search for words.

Jenny stepped forward, though, and seized Brianna’s hands, looking up into her face. A soft pink bloomed in her cheeks, making her look suddenly young.

“Jamie’s? You’re truly Jamie’s lassie?” She squeezed Brianna’s hands hard between her own.

“My mother says so.”

Brianna felt the answering smile on her own face. Jenny’s hands were cool, but Brianna felt a rush of warmth nonetheless, which spread through her hands and up into her chest. She caught the faint, spicy scent of baking in the folds of Jenny’s gown, and something else, more earthy and pungent, that she thought must be the smell of sheep’s wool.

“Does she, so?” Laoghaire had recovered both her voice and her self-possession. She stepped forward, eyes narrowed. “Jamie Fraser’s your father, aye? And just who might your mother be?”

Brianna stiffened.

“His wife,” she said. “Who else?”

Laoghaire put back her head and laughed. It wasn’t a nice laugh.

“Who else?” she said, mimicking. “Who else indeed, lassie! And just which wife would that be, now?”

Brianna felt the blood drain from her own face, and her hands grow stiff in Jenny’s as the flood of realization washed over her. You idiot, she thought. You stupid idiot. It was twenty years! Of course he would have married again. Of course. No matter how much he loved Mama.

On the heels of this thought was another, more terrible. Did she find him? Oh, God, did she find him with a new wife, and he sent her away? Oh, God, where is she?

She turned blindly, wanting to run, not knowing where to go, what to do, only feeling that she must get out of here at once, and find her mother.

“You’ll be wanting to sit down, I expect, Cousin. Come into the parlor, aye?” Young Jamie’s voice was firm in her ear, and his arm was around her, turning her, urging her down the hall and through one of the doors that opened off it.

She scarcely heard the babble of voices around her, the confusion of explanations and accusations that popped around her ears like strings of firecrackers. She glimpsed a small, neat man with a face like the White Rabbit, looking vastly surprised, and another man, much taller, who rose as she came into the parlor and came toward her, his weathered, homely face creased in concern.

It was the tall man who calmed the racket and brought everyone to order, extracting from the confused muddle of voices an explanation of her presence.

“Jamie’s daughter?” He glanced at her with interest, but looked much less surprised than anyone else so far. “What’s your name, a leannan?”

“Brianna.” She was too upset to smile at him, but he didn’t seem to mind.

“Brianna.” He eased himself down on a hassock, motioning her to a seat opposite, and she saw that he had a wooden leg that protruded stiffly to one side. He took her hand and smiled at her, the warm light in his soft brown eyes making her feel momentarily safer.

“I’m your uncle Ian, lass. Welcome to ye.” Her own hand tightened on his involuntarily, clinging to the refuge he seemed to offer. He didn’t flinch or draw back, just looked her over carefully, seeming amused by the way she was dressed.

“Been sleeping in the heather, have ye?” he said, seeing the dirt and plant stains on her clothes. “You’ll have come some way to find us, niece.”

“She says she’s your niece,” Laoghaire said. Recovered from her shock, she peered over Ian’s shoulder, her round face pinched with dislike. “Belike she’s only come to see what she can get.”

“I shouldna be callin’ the kettle black, Laoghaire,” Ian said mildly. He twisted round to face her. “Or was it not you and Hobart a half-hour past, tryin’ to squeeze five hundred pounds from me?”

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