Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 117

   

“But why should—look, what’s the trouble?” she said, moved past awkwardness by curiosity and pity for his obvious distress. She took him by the arm and drew him into the shelter of a corner, where the racket was slightly diminished.

“Now, why are you so anxious that I should hire your daughter?”

She could see the muscles move in his throat as he swallowed convulsively.

“There is a man. He—he desires her. Not as a servant. As a—as a—concubine.” The words came out in a hoarse whisper, and a flood of ugly crimson stained his face.

“Mmphm,” said Brianna, discovering all at once the utility of this ambiguous expression. “I see. But you needn’t let your daughter go to him, surely?”

“I have no choice.” His agony was patent. “Her contract has been bought by Mr. Ransom—the broker.” He jerked his head backward, indicating a tough-looking gentleman in a tie-wig, who was talking to Young Jamie. “He can dispose of it to whom he will—and he will sell her without a moment’s hesitation to this…this…” He choked, overcome by despair.

“Here, take this.” She hastily untucked the wide kerchief from her bodice, took it off her neck, and handed it to him. It left her slightly less than modest, but this seemed like an emergency.

Clearly it was, to him. He swabbed blindly at his face, then dropped the cloth and seized her free hand in both of his.

“He is a drover; he has gone to the cattle market to sell his beasts. When he has done so, he will return with the money for her contract, and take her away to his house in Aberdeen. When I heard him say so to Ransom, I was thrown into the most violent despair. I prayed most urgently to the Lord for her deliverance. And then—” He gulped.

“I saw you—so proud and noble and kind-seeming—and it did come to me as my prayers were answered. Oh, ma’am, I pray ye, do not disdain a father’s plea. Take her!”

“But I’m going to America! You’d never—” She bit her lip. “I mean, you wouldn’t see her—for a very long time.”

The desperate father went quite white at this. He closed his eyes, and seemed to sway slightly, giving at the knees.

“The Colonies?” he whispered. Then he opened his eyes once more and set his jaw.

“Better she should be gone from me forever to a wild place, than to meet dishonor before my eyes.”

Brianna had no idea what to say to this. She glanced helplessly over the man’s head at the sea of bobbing heads.

“Er…your daughter…which one…?”

The flicker of hope in his eyes sprang into sudden flame, shocking in its intensity.

“Bless ye, lady! I will fetch her to ye directly!”

He pressed her hand fervently, then darted away into the crowd, leaving her staring after him. After a moment, she shrugged helplessly, and bent to pick up her fallen kerchief. How had this happened? And what in the name of goodness would her uncle and her cousin say, if she—

“This is Elizabeth,” a voice announced breathlessly. “Do your duty to the lady, Lizzie.”

Brianna looked down and found the decision made for her.

“Oh, dear,” she murmured, seeing the neat white parting down the middle of the small head that bent in a deep curtsy before her. “A puppy.”

The head bobbed upright, presenting her with a thin, starved-looking face, in which scared gray eyes occupied most of the available space.

“Your servant, mum,” said the small, white-lipped mouth. Or at least that’s what it looked like it said; the girl spoke so softly, she couldn’t be heard above the surrounding racket.

“She will serve ye well, ma’am, aye, indeed she will!” The father’s anxious voice was more audible. She glanced at him; there was a strong resemblance between father and daughter, both with the same flyaway fair hair, the same thin, anxious faces. They were nearly the same height, though the girl was so frail, she seemed like her father’s shadow.

“Er…hello.” She smiled at the girl, trying to seem reassuring. The girl’s head tilted fearfully back, looking up. She swallowed visibly, and licked her lips.

“Ah…how old are you, Lizzie? May I call you Lizzie?”

The small head bobbed on a neck that looked like a wild mushroom’s stalk; long, colorless, and infinitely fragile. The girl whispered something that Brianna didn’t catch; she looked at the father, who answered eagerly.

“Fourteen, ma’am. But she’s a rare hand with cooking and sewing, clean in her person and ye’ll never find a soul more biddable and willing!”

He stood behind his daughter, hands on her shoulders, gripped tight enough to show his knuckles white. His eyes met Brianna’s. They were pale blue, pleading. His lips moved—without sound, but she heard him clearly.

“Please,” he said.

Beyond him, Brianna could see her uncle, who had come into the hall. He was talking to Young Jamie, smooth head and curly bent together in close conversation. In a moment they would be looking for her.

She took a deep breath and drew herself up to her full height. Well, and if you came right down to it, she thought, she was as much a Fraser as her cousin. Let them find out just how stubborn a rock could be.

She smiled at the girl and held out a hand, offering the second, uneaten bridie.

“It’s a bargain, Lizzie. Will you have a bite to seal it?”

“She’s eaten my food,” Brianna said, with as much assurance as she could conjure up. “She’s mine.”

Rather to her surprise, this statement finally put a stop to the argument. Her cousin looked as though he meant to go on remonstrating, but her uncle put a hand on Young Jamie’s arm to silence him. The look of surprise on Ian’s face turned to a sort of amused respect.

“Has she, now?” He looked at Lizzie, cowering behind Brianna, and his lips twitched. “Mmphm. Well, then, not much more to be said, is there?”

Young Jamie evidently didn’t share his father’s assessment of this point; he could think of quite a lot more to be said.

“But a wee lassie like that—she’s useless!” He waved a dismissive hand at Lizzie, frowning. “Why, she isna big enough even to carry baggage, let alone—”

“I’m big enough to carry my own bags, thanks,” Brianna put in. She lowered her brows and gave her cousin back scowl for scowl, straightening up to emphasize her height.

He lifted an eyebrow in acknowledgment, but didn’t give up.

“A woman shouldna be traveling alone—”

“I won’t be alone, I’ll have Lizzie.”

“—and certainly not to a place like America! Why, it’s—”

“You’d think it was the ends of the earth to hear you talk, and you haven’t even seen it!” Brianna said in exasperation. “I was born in America, for heaven’s sake!”

Uncle and cousin gaped at her, identical expressions of shock on their faces. She seized the opportunity to press her advantage.

“It’s my money, and my servant, and my journey. I’ve given my word, and I’ll keep it!”

Ian rubbed a knuckle across his upper lip, suppressing a grin. He shook his head.

“They say it’s a wise bairn that kens its father, but I dinna think there’s much doubt who yours is, lass. Ye might have had the lang nebbit and red locks from anyone, but ye didna get the stubbornness from any man but Jamie Fraser.”

A self-conscious flush rose to her cheeks, but Brianna felt an odd flutter of something like pleasure.

His feathers ruffled from the argument, Young Jamie made one last attempt.

“It’s verra unseemly for a woman to be givin’ her opinions sae free, and her with menfolk to look after her,” he said stiffly.

“You don’t think women ought to have opinions?” Brianna asked sweetly.

“No, I don’t!”

Ian gave his son a long look.

“And you’ll have been marrit what, eight years?” He shook his head. “Aye, well, your Joan’s a tactful woman.” Ignoring Young Jamie’s black look, he turned back to Lizzie.

“Verra well, then. Go and take farewell of your father, lassie. I’ll see to the papers.” He watched Lizzie scurry away, thin shoulders hunched against the crowd. He shook his head a little doubtfully, and turned back to Brianna.

“Well, she’ll maybe be better company for ye than a manservant, lass, but your cousin’s right about the one thing—she’ll be no protection. It’ll be you lookin’ out for her, likely.”

Brianna straightened her shoulders and thrust out her chin, summoning up as much self-confidence as she could, in spite of the sudden hollow feeling that assailed her.

“I can manage,” she said.

She kept her hand curled tight, holding on to the stone in her palm. It was something to cling to, as the Moray Firth widened into the sea, and the cradling shore of Scotland fell away to either side.

Why ought she to feel so strongly for a place she hardly knew? Lizzie, born and raised in Scotland, had spared no glance for the receding land but had gone below at once, to lay claim to their space and arrange the few belongings they had brought aboard.

Brianna had never thought of herself as Scottish—had not known she was Scottish until quite recently—yet she had scarcely felt more bereft by her mother’s leaving or her father’s death than by this parting from people and places she had known for so short a time.

Perhaps it was only the contagious emotion of the other passengers. Many of them were standing at the rail as she was, several weeping openly. Or fear of the long journey ahead. But she knew quite well it was none of those things.

“That’s that, I expect.” It was Lizzie, appearing at her elbow after all, to see the last sight of the land fade away. Her small pale face was expressionless, but Brianna didn’t mistake lack of expression for lack of feeling.

“Yes, we’re on our way.” Moved by impulse, Brianna put out a hand and drew the girl to stand in front of her at the rail, sheltered alike from freshening wind and from jostling passengers and seamen. Lizzie was a good foot shorter than Brianna, and fine-boned as the delicate sooty terns that circled the masts, squawking overhead.

The sun did not really set at this time of year but hung low above the dark hills, and the air had grown quite cold in the Firth. The girl was thinly dressed; she shivered, and pressed quite unselfconsciously against Brianna for warmth. Brianna had a blue woolen arisaid provided by Jenny; she wrapped her arms and the shawl ends around the younger girl, finding as much comfort in the embrace as she gave.

“It will be all right,” she said, to herself as much as to Lizzie.

The pale blond head bobbed briefly under her chin; she couldn’t tell whether it was a nod, or only Lizzie’s attempt to get the wind-whipped strands of hair out of her eyes. Elf-locks snatched from her own thick plait fluttered in the stiff salt breeze, echoing the pull of the huge sails above. Despite her misgivings, she felt her spirits start to rise with the wind. She had survived a good many partings so far; she would survive this. That was what made this leaving hard, she thought. She had already lost father, mother, lover, home, and friends. She was alone by necessity, and also by choice. But then to find both home and family again so unexpectedly at Lallybroch had caught her unaware. She would have given almost anything to stay—just a little longer.

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