Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 121

   

At that, he’d heard no complaint; the water was clean, the biscuit was not moldy, and if the allowance of “corn” was not generous, neither was it niggardly. The crew was fed better, but still on meat and starch, with only the occasional onion for relief. He ran his tongue round his teeth, testing, as he did every few days. The faint taste of iron was nearly always in his mouth now; his gums were beginning to bleed from the lack of fresh vegetables.

Still, his teeth were strongly rooted, and he had no sign of the swollen joints or bruised nails that several of the other crewmen showed. He’d looked it up, during his weeks of waiting; a normal adult male in good health should be able to endure from three to six months of prolonged vitamin deficiency before suffering any real symptoms. If the good weather held, they’d be across in only two.

“It will be good weather tomorrow, aye?” His attention recalled by this apparent reading of his thoughts, he looked down to find that it was the bonny brown-haired girl he’d admired on the quay in Inverness. Morag, her friends called her.

“I am hoping it may be,” he said, taking her bucket with an answering smile. “Why do ye say so?”

She nodded, pointing over his shoulder with a small sharp chin. “There’s the new moon in the arms o’ the old; if that means fine weather on the land, I should think it is the same on the sea, no?”

He glanced back to see the pale clean curve of a silver moon, holding a glowing orb in its cup. It rode high and perfect in an endless evening sky of pale violet, its reflection swallowed by the indigo sea.

“Dinna be wasting time chattering, lass—go on and ask him!” He turned back in time to hear this hissed over Morag’s shoulder by the middle-aged woman behind her. Morag glared back.

“Will ye hush?” she hissed back. “I’ll not, I said I won’t!”

“Ye’re a stubborn lass, Morag,” the older woman declared, stepping boldly forward, “and if ye willna be asking for yourself, I shall do it for ye!”

The good-lady laid a broad hand on Roger’s arm and gave him a charming smile.

“And what might your name be, lad?”

“MacKenzie, ma’am,” Roger said respectfully, holding back a smile.

“Ah, MacKenzie, is it! Well, there, ye see, Morag, and belike he’ll be some kinsman of your man’s, and happy to do ye a service, at that!” The woman turned triumphantly to the girl, then swung back to let Roger have the full force of her personality.

“She’s suckling a wean, and dyin’ o’ thirst in the doin’ of it. A woman needs to drink when she’s giving suck, or her milk dries; everyone kens that weel enough. But the silly lass cannae bring herself to ask ye for a bittie more water. There’s nane here grudge it to her—is there?” she demanded rhetorically, turning round to glare at the other women in line. Not surprisingly, all the heads shook back and forth like clockwork toys.

It was getting dark, but Morag’s face was visibly pink. Lips pressed tight together, she accepted the brimming bucket of water with a brief bob of her head.

“I thank ye, Mr. MacKenzie,” she murmured. She didn’t look up until she had reached the hatchway—but then she stopped, and looked back over her shoulder at him, with a smile of such gratitude that he felt himself grow warm, in spite of the sharp evening wind that blew through his shirt and jacket.

He was sorry to see the water line finish and the emigrants go below, the hatch battened down over them for the night watches. He knew they told stories and sang songs to pass the time, and would have given much to hear them. Not only from curiosity, but from longing—what moved him was neither pity for their poverty nor thought of their uncertain future; it was envy of the sense of connection among them.

But the Captain, the crew, the passengers, even the all-important weather, occupied no more than a fragment of Roger’s thoughts. What he thought about, day and night, wet or dry, hungry or fed, was Brianna.

He went down to the mess when the signal came for supper, and ate without much noticing the contents of his trencher. His was the second watch; he went to his hammock after eating, choosing solitude and rest over the possibility of companionship on the forecastle.

Solitude was an illusion, of course. Swinging gently in his hammock, he could feel each twitch and turn of the man next to him, the sweating heat of sleeping flesh clammy against his own through the thick cotton mesh. Each man had eighteen inches of sleeping space to call his own, and Roger was uncomfortably aware that when he lay upon his back, his shoulders exceeded that allowance by a good two inches on either side.

After two nights of sleep interrupted by the bumps and muttered insults of his shipmates, he had swapped places and ended in the space next the bulkhead, where he would have only one companion to discommode. He learned to lie on one side, his face an inch or two from the wooden partition, back turned to his companions, and tune his ears to the sounds of the ship, blocking out the noises of the men around him.

A very musical thing was a ship—lines and hawsers singing in the wind, the timber knees creaking with each rise and fall, the faint thumps and murmurs on the far side of the bulkhead, in the dark recesses of the passengers’ hold in the steerage. He stared at the dark wood, lit by the shadows of the swinging lantern overhead, and began to re-create her, the lines of face and hair and body all vivid in the dark. Too vivid.

He could conjure her face without difficulty. What lay behind it was a good deal harder.

Rest was also an illusion. When she had gone through the stones, she had taken with her all peace of mind. He lived in a mixture of fear and anger, spiced with the hurt of betrayal, rubbed like pepper into the wounds. The same questions ran round and round inside his mind without answers, a snake chasing its tail.

Why had she gone?

What was she doing?

Why didn’t she tell him?

It was the effort to come up with an answer to the first of these that kept him going over and over it, as though the answer might afford him the key to the whole mystery of Brianna.

Yeah, he’d been lonely. Knew bloody well what it felt like to have no one in the world who belonged to you, or you to them. But surely that was one reason why they had reached out to each other—he and Brianna.

Claire knew, too, he thought suddenly. She’d been orphaned, lost her uncle—of course, she’d been married then. But she’d been separated from her husband during the war…yes, she knew a lot about being alone. And that was why she’d taken care not to leave Bree alone, to assure herself that her daughter was loved.

Well, he’d tried to love her properly—was still trying, he thought grimly, twisting uncomfortably in his hammock. During the day, the demands of work suppressed the growing needs of his body. At night, though…she was a deal too vivid, the Brianna of his memory.

He hadn’t hesitated; he’d known from the first moment of realization that he must follow her. Sometimes, though, he was not sure whether he had come to save her or to savage her—anything, so long as it was settled once and for all between them. He’d said he’d wait—but he’d waited long enough.

The worst of it was not the loneliness, he thought, flinging restlessly over again, but the doubt. Doubt of her feelings, and of his. Panic that he did not truly know her.

For the first time since his passage through the stones, he realized what she had meant in refusing him, and knew her hesitance for wisdom. But was it wisdom, and not only fear?

If she had not gone through the stones—would she have turned to him at last, wholeheartedly? Or turned away, always looking for something else?

It was a leap of faith—to throw one’s heart across a gulf, and trust another to catch it. His own was still in flight across the void, with no certainty of landing. But still in flight.

The sounds on the other side of the bulkhead had faded to silence, but now they started up again, in a stealthy, rhythmic fashion with which he was thoroughly familiar. They were at it again, whoever they were.

They did it almost every night, when the others had gone to sleep. At first the sounds had made him feel only his isolation, alone with the burning ghost of Brianna. There seemed no possibility of true human warmth, no joining of heart or mind, no more than the animal consolation of a body to cling to in the dark. Was there really any more for a man than this?

But then he began to hear something else in the sounds, half-caught words of tenderness, small furtive sounds of affirmation, that made him in some way not a voyeur, but a participant in their joining.

He couldn’t tell, of course. It might have been any of the couples, or a random pairing of lust—and yet he put faces to them, this unknown pair; in his mind, he saw the tall, fair-haired young man, the brown-haired lass with the open face, saw them look at each other as they had on the quay, and would have sold his soul to know such certainty.

38

FOR THOSE IN PERIL ON THE SEA

A sudden hard squall kept the passengers belowdecks for three days, and the sailors at their posts with no more than scant minutes snatched for rest or food. At the end of it, when the Gloriana rode high on the dying storm-swell and the dawn sky was filled with racing mare’s-tails, Roger staggered down to his hammock, too exhausted even to shuck his wet clothes.

Crumpled, damp, crusted with salt and feeling fit for nothing but a hot bath and another week’s sleep, he answered the bosun’s whistle for the afternoon watch after four hours rest, and staggered through his duties.

He was so tired by sunset that his muscles quivered as he helped to heave up a fresh water barrel from the hold. He caved in the top with a hatchet, thinking that he might just manage the exertion of ladling out water rations without falling headfirst into the barrel. Then again, he might not. He splashed a cool handful of the fresh water into his face, in hopes of soothing his burning eyes, and gulped down a whole dipperful, ignoring for once the strictures imposed by that constant contradiction of the sea—always both too much water, and too little.

The folk bringing up their jars and buckets to be filled looked as though they felt even worse than he did; green-gilled as mushrooms, bruised from being pitched to and fro in the hold like billiard balls, reeking of renewed seasickness and overflowing chamber pots.

In marked contrast to the general air of pallid malaise, one of his old acquaintances was skipping in rings around him, singing in a monotonous chant that grated on his ears.

“Seven herrings are a salmon’s fill,

Seven salmon are a seal’s fill,

Seven seals are a whale’s fill,

And seven whales the fill of a Cirein Croin!”

Bubbling with the freedom of release from the hold, the little girl hopped around like a demented chickadee, making Roger smile in spite of his tiredness. She hopped to the rail, then stood on tiptoe, and peeked cautiously over.

“D’ye think ’twas a Cirein Croin caused the storming, Mr. MacKenzie? Grandda says it was, like enough. They lash their great huge tails about, ye ken,” she informed him. “That’s what makes the waves go sae big.”

“I shouldna be thinking such a thing, myself. Where’s your brothers, then, a leannan?”

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