Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 118

   

But there were promises to keep, losses to be made good. Then she could come back. To Scotland. And to Roger.

She shifted her arm, feeling his thin silver band warm on her wrist under the shawl, the metal heated by her own flesh. Un peu…beaucoup…Her other hand gripped the cloth together, exposed to the wind and damp with sea spray. If it hadn’t been so cold, she might not have noticed the sudden warmth of the drop that fell on the back of her hand.

Lizzie stood stiff as a stick, her arms hugged tight around herself. Her ears were large and transparent, her hair fine and thin, sleek to her skull. Her ears poked out like a mouse’s, tender and fragile in the soft deep light of the low night sun.

Brianna reached up and wiped away the tears by touch. Her own eyes were dry, and her mouth set firm as she looked out at the land over Lizzie’s head, but the cold face and quivering lips against her hand might as well have been her own.

They stood for some time silently, until the last of the land was gone.

36

YOU CAN’T GO HOME AGAIN

Inverness, July 1769

Roger walked slowly through the town, looking around him with a mixture of fascination and delight. Inverness had changed a bit in two hundred-odd years, no doubt of it, and yet it was recognizably the same town; a good deal smaller, to be sure, with half its muddy streets unpaved, and yet he knew this street he was walking down, had walked down it a hundred times before.

It was Huntly Street, and while most of the small shops and buildings were unfamiliar, across the river stood the Old High Church—not so Old, now—its stubby steeple blunt as ever. Surely if he went inside, Mrs. Dunvegan, the minister’s wife, would be setting out flowers in the chancel, ready for the Sunday service. But she wouldn’t—Mrs. Dunvegan hadn’t happened yet, with her thick wool sweaters and the terrible pot pies with which she tormented the sick of her husband’s parish. Yet the small stone kirk stood solid and familiar, in the charge of a stranger.

His father’s own church wasn’t here; it had been—would be?—built in 1837. Likewise the manse, which had always seemed so elderly and decrepit, had not been built until the early 1900s. He had passed the site on his way; there was nothing there now save a tangle of cinquefoil and sweet broom, and a single small rowan sapling that sprouted from the underbrush, leaves fluttering in the light wind.

There was the same damp coolness to the air, tingling with freshness—but the overlying stink of motor exhaust was gone, replaced by a distant reek of sewage. The most striking absence was the churches; where both banks of the river would one day sport a noble profusion of steeples and spires, now there was nothing save a scatter of small buildings.

There was only the one stone footbridge, but the River Ness itself was naturally much the same. The river was low and the same gulls sat in the riffles, squawking companionably to one another as they picked small fish from among the stones just under the water’s surface.

“Luck to you, mate,” he said to a fat gull who sat on the bridge, and crossed the river into the town.

Here and there, a gracious residence sat comfortably insulated by its wide grounds, a grand lady spreading her skirts, ignoring the presence of the hoi polloi nearby. There was Mountgerald in the distance, the big house looking precisely as he had always known it, save that the great copper beeches that would in future surround the house had not yet been planted; instead, a row of spindly Italian cypresses leaned dismally against the garden wall, looking homesick for their sunny birthplace.

For all its elegance, Mountgerald was reputed to have been built in the oldest of the old ways—with the foundation laid over the body of a human sacrifice. By report, a workman had been lured into the hole of the cellar, and a great stone dropped onto him from the top of the newly built wall, crushing him to death. He had—so local history said—been buried there in the cellar, his blood a propitiation to the hungry spirits of the earth, who thus satisfied, had allowed the edifice to stand prosperous and untroubled through the years.

The house could be no more than twenty or thirty years old now, Roger thought. There might easily be people in the town who had worked on its building; who knew exactly what had happened in that cellar, to whom, and why.

But he had other things to do; Mountgerald and its ghost would have to keep their secrets. With a mild pang of regret, he left the big house behind, and turned his scholar’s nose into the road that led to the docks downriver.

With a feeling of what could only be called déjà vu, he pushed open the door of a pub. The half-timbered entry, with its stone flags, was as he had seen it a week before—and two hundred years hence—and the familiar smell of hops and yeast in the air was a comfort to his spirit. The name had changed, but not the smell of beer.

Roger took a deep gulp from his wooden cup and nearly choked. “All right, man?” The barman paused, a bucket of sand in his hand, to peer at Roger.

“Fine,” Roger said hoarsely. “Just fine.”

The barman nodded and went back to scattering sand, but kept a practiced eye on Roger in case he looked like vomiting on the freshly swept and sanded floor.

Roger coughed and cleared his throat, then essayed a further cautious sip. The flavor was fine; very good, in fact. It was the alcohol content that was unexpected; this stuff packed a wallop far greater than any modern beer Roger had ever encountered. Claire had said that alcoholism was endemic to the time, and Roger could easily see why. Still, if drunkenness were the greatest hazard he faced, he could deal with that.

He sat quietly by the hearth and drank, savoring the dark, bitter brew as he watched and listened.

It was a port pub, and a busy one. So near the docks on the Moray Firth, it hosted sea captains and merchants, as well as sailors from the ships in port and longshoremen and laborers from the nearby warehouses. A great deal of business of one kind and another was being transacted over the beer-stained surfaces of its many small tables.

With half an ear Roger could hear a contract being arranged for the shipping of three hundred bolts of cheap drugget cloth from Aberdeen, bound for the Colonies, with an exchange to be made for a cargo of rice and indigo from the Carolinas. A hundred head of Galloway cattle, six hundred-weight of rolled copper, casks of sulfur, molasses, and wine. Quantities and prices, delivery dates and conditions floated through the babble and beer fumes of the pub like the thick blue clouds of tobacco smoke that floated near the low ceiling-beams.

Not only goods were being bargained for. In one corner sat a ship’s captain, marked by the cut of his long, full-skirted coat and the fine black tricorne that lay on the table by his elbow. He was attended by a clerk, a ledger and a money box on the table before him, interviewing a steady stream of people, emigrants seeking passage to the Colonies for themselves and their families.

Roger watched the proceedings covertly. The ship was bound for Virginia, and after listening for some time he deduced that the cost of passage for a male passenger—for a gentleman, that is—was ten pounds, eight shillings. Those willing to travel in the steerage, packed like casks and cattle in the lower holds, might ship aboard for four pounds, two shillings each, bringing their own food for a six-weeks voyage. Fresh water, he gathered, was provided.

For those desiring passage but lacking funds, there were other means available.

“Indenturement for yourself, your wife, and your two elder sons?” The captain tilted his head appraisingly, looking over the family that stood before him. A small, wiry man, who might be in his early thirties but looked much older, shabby and bowed with labor. His wife, perhaps a little younger, standing behind her husband, eyes glued to the floor, tightly grasping the hands of two little girls. One of the girls held on to her baby brother, a lad of three or four. The elder boys stood by their father, trying to look manly. Roger thought they might be ten and twelve, allowing for the puny stature caused by malnutrition.

“Yourself and the boys, aye, that’ll do,” the captain said. He frowned at the woman, who didn’t look up. “No one will buy a woman with so many young ones—she might keep one, perhaps. You’ll have to sell the girls, though.”

The man glanced back at his family. His wife kept her head down, unmoving, not looking at anything. One of the girls twitched and jerked, though, complaining in an undertone that her hand was being crushed. The man turned back.

“All right,” he said, low-voiced. “Can they—might they—go together?”

The captain rubbed a hand across his mouth, and nodded indifferently.

“Likely enough.”

Roger didn’t wait to witness the details of the transaction. He got up abruptly and left the pub; the dark beer had lost its taste.

He paused in the street outside, fingering the coins in his pocket. It was all he had been able to collect of suitable money, in the time he’d had. He had thought that it would be enough, though; he was good-sized and had a fair amount of confidence in his own abilities. Still, the little scene he had witnessed in the pub had shaken him.

He had grown up with the history of the Highlands. He knew well enough the sorts of things that drove families to such a pitch of desperation that they would accept permanent separation and semislavery as the price of survival.

He knew all about the sale of lands that forced small crofters off the lands their families had tended for hundreds of years, all about the dreadful conditions of penury and starvation in the cities, the simple insupportableness of life in Scotland in these days. And not all his years of reading and study had prepared him for the look of that woman’s face, her eyes fixed on the fresh-sanded floor, her daughters’ hands clutched hard in her own.

Ten pounds, eight shillings. Or four pounds, two. Plus whatever it might cost for food. He had exactly fourteen shillings, threepence in his pocket, together with a handful of copper doits and a couple of farthings.

He walked slowly down the lane that led along the seaside, glancing at the collection of ships that lay moored by the wooden docks. Fishing ketches, for the most part, small galleys and brigs that plied their trade up and down the Firth, or at most ran across the Channel, carrying cargo and passengers to France. Only three large ships lay at anchor in the Firth, those of a size to brave the winds of the Atlantic crossing.

He could cross to France, of course, and take ship from there. Or travel overland to Edinburgh, a much larger port than Inverness. But it would be late in the year then, for sailing. Brianna was six weeks before him already; he could waste no time in finding her—God knew what could happen to a woman alone here.

Four pounds, two shillings. Well, he could work, certainly. With neither children nor wife to support, he could save most of his earnings. But given that the average clerk earned something like twelve pounds per year, and that he was much more likely to find work shoveling stables than keeping accounts, the chances of his saving up passage money in any reasonable time were fairly slim.

“First things first,” he muttered. “Be sure where she’s gone, before you trouble about getting there yourself.”

Taking his hand out of his pocket, he turned right between two warehouses, and into a narrow lane. His high spirits of the morning had largely evaporated, but they lifted slightly, nonetheless, when he saw that he had been right in his guess; the harbormaster’s office was where he had known it must be—in the same squat stone building where it still would be, two hundred years hence. Roger smiled with wry humor; Scots were not inclined to make changes purely for the sake of change.

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