Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 136

   

He saw her hesitate and flush, and recognized her trouble.

“You can…call me Da,” he said. His voice was husky; he stopped and cleared his throat. “If—if ye want to, I mean,” he added diffidently.

“Da,” she said, and felt the smile bloom easily this time, unmarred by tears. “Da. Is that Gaelic?”

He smiled back, the corners of his mouth trembling slightly.

“No. It’s only…simple.”

And suddenly it was all simple. He held out his arms to her. She stepped into them and found that she had been wrong; he was as big as she’d imagined—and his arms were as strong about her as she had ever dared to hope.

Everything after that seemed to happen in a daze. Overcome by emotion and fatigue, Brianna was conscious of events more as a series of images, sharp as stop-frame photos, than as a moving flow of life.

Lizzie, gray eyes blinking in the sudden light, tiny and pale in the arms of a sturdy black groom with an improbable Scottish accent. A wagon piled with glass and fragrant wood. The polished rumps of horses, and the jolt and creak of wooden wheels. Her father’s voice, deep and warm in her ear, describing a house to be built, high on a mountain ridge, explaining that the windows were a surprise for her mother.

“But no such a surprise as you, lassie!” And a laugh of deep joy that seemed to echo in her bones.

A long ride down dusty roads, and sleeping with her head on her father’s shoulder, his free arm around her as he drove, breathing the unfamiliar scent of his skin, his strange long hair brushing her face when he turned his head.

Then the cool luxury of the big, breezy house, filled with the scent of beeswax and flowers. A tall woman with white hair and Brianna’s face, and a blue-eyed gaze that looked disconcertingly beyond her. Long cool hands that touched her face and stroked her hair with abstract curiosity.

“Lizzie,” she said, and a pretty woman bent over Lizzie, murmuring, “Jesuit bark,” her black hands beautiful against the yellow porcelain of Lizzie’s face.

Hands—so many hands. Everything was done as if by magic, with soft murmurs as they passed her from hand to hand. She was stripped and bathed before she could protest, scented water poured over her, firm, gentle fingers that massaged her scalp as lavender soap was sluiced from her hair. Linen towels and a small black girl who dried her feet and sprinkled them with rice powder.

A fresh cotton gown and floating barefoot over polished floors, to see her father’s eyes light at sight of her. Food—cakes and trifles and jellies and scones—and hot, sweet tea that seemed to replace the blood in her veins.

A pretty blond girl with a frown on her face, who seemed peculiarly familiar; her father called her Marsali. Lizzie, washed and wrapped in a blanket, both frail hands round a mug of pungent liquid, looking like a steppedon flower newly watered.

Talk, and people coming, and more talk, with only the occasional phrase penetrating through her growing fog.

“…Farquard Campbell has more sense…”

“Fergus, Da, did ye see him? Is he all right?”

Da? she thought, half puzzled, faintly indignant that someone else should call him that, because…because…

Her aunt’s voice, coming from a great distance, saying, “The poor child is asleep where she sits; I can hear her snoring. Ulysses, take her up to bed.”

And then strong arms that lifted her with no sense of strain, but not the candlewax smell of the black butler; the sawdust and linen scent of her father. She gave up the struggle and fell asleep, her head on his chest.

Fergus Fraser might sound like a Scottish clansman; he looked like a French noble. A French noble on his way to the guillotine, Brianna silently amended her first impression.

Handsomely dark, slightly built, and not very tall, he sauntered into the dock, and turned to face the room, long nose lifted an inch above the usual. The shabby clothes, the unshaven jaw, and the large purple bruise over one eye subtracted nothing from his air of aristocratic disdain. Even the curved metal hook that he wore in replacement of a missing hand only added to his impression of disreputable glamour.

Marsali gave a small sigh at sight of him, and her lips grew tight. She leaned across to Brianna to whisper to Jamie.

“What have they done to him, the bastards?”

“Nothing that matters.” He made a small motion, gesturing her back, and she subsided into her seat, glowering at bailiff and sheriff in turn.

They had been lucky to procure seats; every space in the small building was filled, and people were jostling and muttering at the back of the room, kept in order only by the presence of the red-coated soldiers who guarded the doors. Two more soldiers stood to attention at the front of the room, beside the Justice’s bench, an officer of some sort lurking in the corner behind them.

Brianna saw the officer catch Jamie Fraser’s eye, and a look of malign satisfaction crept over the man’s broad features, a look almost of gloating. It made the small hairs rise on the back of her neck, but her father met the man’s gaze squarely, then turned away, indifferent.

The Justice arrived and took his place, and the ceremonies of justice being duly performed, the trial began. Evidently, it was not intended to be a trial by jury, since no such body was present; only the Justice and his minions.

Brianna had made out little from the conversation the evening before, though over breakfast she had managed to disentangle the confusion of persons. The young black woman’s name was Phaedre, one of Jocasta’s slaves, and the tall homely boy with the charming smile was Jamie’s nephew, Ian—her cousin, she thought, with the same small thrill of discovered kinship she had felt at Lallybroch. The lovely blond Marsali was Fergus’s wife, and Fergus, of course, was the French orphan whom Jamie had informally adopted in Paris, before the Stuart Rising.

Mr. Justice Conant, a tidy gentleman of middle age, settled his wig, arranged his coat, and called for the charges to be read. These were, to wit, that one Fergus Claudel Fraser, resident of Rowan County, had on August 4 of this year of our Lord 1769, feloniously assaulted the person of one Hugh Berowne, a deputy sheriff of said county, and stolen from him Crown property, then lawfully in the deputy’s custody.

The said Hugh, being called to the stand, proved to be a gangling fellow of some thirty years and a nervous disposition. He twitched and stammered through his testimony, averring that he had encountered the defendant on the Buffalo Trail Road, while he, Berowne, was in pursuit of his lawful duties. He had been roughly abused by the defendant in the French tongue, and upon his endeavoring to leave, had been pursued by the defendant, who had apprehended him, struck him in the face, and taken away the property of the Crown in Berowne’s custody, to wit, one horse, with bridle and saddle.

Upon the invitation of the court, the witness here pulled back the right side of his mouth in a grimace, disclosing a broken tooth, suffered in the assault.

Mr. Justice Conant peered interestedly at the shattered remains of the tooth, and turned to the prisoner.

“Indeed. And now, Mr. Fraser, might we hear your account of this unfortunate event?”

Fergus lowered his nose half an inch, awarding the justice the same regard he might have bestowed on a cockroach.

“This loathsome wad of dung,” he began in measured tones, “had—”

“The prisoner will refrain from insult,” Justice Conant said coldly.

“The deputy,” Fergus resumed, without turning a hair, “had come upon my wife as she returned from the flour mill, with my infant son upon her saddle. This—the deputy—hailed her, and without ceremony dragged her from the saddle, informed her that he was taking the horse and its equipment in payment of tax, and left her and the child on foot, five miles from my home, in the blazing sun!” He glared ferociously at Berowne, who narrowed his own gaze in reply. Next to Brianna, Marsali exhaled strongly through her nose.

“What tax did the deputy claim was owed?”

A dark flush had mantled Fergus’s cheeks.

“I owe nothing! It was his claim that my land is subject to an annual rent of three shillings, but it is not! My land is exempt from this tax, by virtue of the terms of a land grant made to James Fraser by Governor Tryon. I told the stinking salaud as much, when he visited my home to try to collect the money.”

“I heard nothing of such a grant,” Berowne said sulkily. “These folks will tell you any tale at all, to put off paying. Lallygags and cheats, the lot of them.”

“Oreilles en feuille de chou!”

A small ripple of laughter ran through the room, nearly drowning out the Justice’s rebuke. Brianna’s high-school French was just about adequate to translate this as “Cauliflower ears!” and she joined in the general smile.

The Justice lifted his head and peered into the courtroom.

“Is James Fraser present?”

Jamie rose and bowed respectfully.

“Here, milord.”

“Swear the witness, Bailiff.”

Jamie, having been duly sworn, attested to the facts that he was in fact the proprietor of a grant of land, that said grant had been made and its terms agreed to by Governor Tryon, that said terms did include a quitment of land rent to the Crown for a period of ten years, such period to expire some nine years hence, and finally, that Fergus Fraser did maintain a house upon and farm crops within the boundaries of the granted territory, under license from himself, James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser.

Brianna’s attention had at first been fixed upon her father; she could scarcely get enough of looking at him. He was the tallest man in the courtroom, and by far the most striking, attired in snowy linen and a coat of deep blue that set off his slanted eyes and fiery hair.

A movement in the corner attracted her eye, though, and she looked to see the officer she had noticed before. He was no longer looking at her father, but had fixed Hugh Berowne with a penetrating stare. Berowne gave the shadow of a nod, and sat back to await the end of Fraser’s testimony.

“It would appear that Mr. Fraser’s claim of exemption holds true, Mr. Berowne,” the Justice said mildly. “I must therefore hold him acquitted of the charge of—”

“He cannot prove it!” Berowne blurted out. He glanced at the officer, as though for moral support, and stiffened his long chin. “There is no documentary proof; only James Fraser’s word.”

Another stir went through the courtroom; this one uglier in tone. Brianna had no trouble hearing the shock and outrage that her father’s word had been called in question, and felt an unexpected pride.

Her father showed no anger, though; he rose again, and bowed to the Justice.

“And your Lordship will permit me.” He reached into his coat and removed a folded sheet of parchment, with a blob of red sealing wax affixed.

“Your Lordship will be familiar with the Governor’s seal, I am sure,” he said, laying it on the table before Mr. Conant. The Justice raised one eyebrow, but looked carefully at the seal, then broke it open, examined the document within, and laid it down.

“This is a duly witnessed copy of the original grant of land,” he announced, “signed by His Excellency, William Tryon.”

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