Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 137

   

“How did you get that?” Berowne blurted. “There wasn’t time to get to New Bern and back!” Then all the blood drained from his face. Brianna looked at the officer; his pudgy face seemed to have acquired all the blood Berowne had lost.

The Justice cast him a sharp glance, but merely said, “Given that documentary proof is now entered in evidence, we find that the defendant is plainly not guilty of the charge of theft, since the property in question was his own. On the matter of assault, however—” At this point he noticed that Jamie had not sat down, but was still standing in front of the bench.

“Yes, Mr. Fraser? Had you something else to tell the court?” Justice Conant dabbed at a trickle of sweat that ran down from under his wig; with so many bodies packed into the small room, it was like a sweatbath.

“I beg the court might gratify my curiosity, your Lordship. Does Mr. Berowne’s original charge describe more fully the attack upon him?”

The Justice raised both eyebrows, but shuffled quickly through the papers on the table before him, then handed one to the bailiff, pointing to a spot on the page.

“Complainant stated that one Fergus Fraser struck him in the face with his fist, causing complainant to fall stunned upon the ground, whereat the defendant seized the bridle of the horse, leapt upon it, and rode away, calling out remarks of an abusive nature in the French tongue. Complainant—”

A loud cough from the dock pulled all eyes to the defendant, who smiled charmingly at Mr. Justice Conant, plucked a handkerchief from his pocket and elaborately wiped his face—using the hook at the end of his left arm.

“Oh!” said the Justice, and swiveled cold eyes toward the witness chair, where Berowne squirmed in hot-faced agony.

“And would you care to explain, sir, how you have sustained injury upon the right side of your face, when struck by the left fist of a man who does not have one?”

“Yes, crottin,” Fergus said cheerfully. “Explain that one.”

Perhaps feeling that Berowne’s attempts at explanation were best conducted in privacy, Justice Conant mopped his neck and put a summary end to the trial, dismissing Fergus Fraser with no stain upon his character.

“It was me,” Marsali said proudly, clinging to the arm of her husband at the celebratory feast that followed the trial.

“You?” Jamie gave her an amused glance. “That fisted yon deputy in the face, ye mean?”

“Not my fist, my foot,” she corrected. “When the wicked salaud tried to drag me off the horse, I kicked him in the jaw. He’d never ha’ got me down,” she added, glowering at the memory, “save he snatched Germaine from me, so of course I had to go and get him.”

She petted the sleek blond head of the toddler who clung to her skirts, a piece of biscuit clutched in one grubby fist.

“I don’t quite understand,” Brianna said. “Did Mr. Berowne not want to admit that a woman hit him?”

“Ah, no,” Jamie said, pouring another cup of ale and handing it to her. “It was only Sergeant Murchison making a nuisance of himself.”

“Sergeant Murchison? That would be the army officer who was at the trial?” she asked. She took a small sip of the ale, for politeness’ sake. “The one who looks like a half-roasted pig?”

Her father grinned at this characterization.

“Aye, that’ll be the man. He’s a mislike of me,” he explained. “This wilna be the first time—or the last—that he’s tried such a trick to cripple me.”

“He could not hope to succeed with such a ridiculous charge,” Jocasta chimed in, leaning forward and reaching out a hand. Ulysses, standing by, moved the plate of bannocks the necessary inch. She took one, unerringly, and turned her disconcerting blind eyes toward Jamie.

“Was it really necessary for you to subvert Farquard Campbell?” she asked, disapproving.

“Aye, it was,” Jamie answered. Seeing Brianna’s confusion, he explained.

“Farquard Campbell is the usual justice of this district. If he hadna fallen ill so conveniently”—and here he grinned again, mischief dancing in his eyes—“the trial would have been held last week. That was their plan, aye? Murchison and Berowne. They meant to bring the charge, arrest Fergus, and force me down from the mountain in the midst of the harvest—and they succeeded in that much, damn them,” he added ruefully.

“But they counted on my not being able to obtain a copy of the grant from New Bern before the trial—as indeed I could not, had it been last week.” He gave Ian a smile, and the boy, who had ridden hellbent to New Bern to procure the document, blushed pink and buried his face in a bowl of punch.

“Farquard Campbell is a friend, Auntie,” Jamie said to Jocasta, “but ye ken as well as I that he’s a man of the law; it wouldna make a bit of difference that he knows the terms of my grant as well as I do; if I couldna produce the proof in court, he would feel himself forced to rule against me.

“And if he had,” he went on, returning to Brianna, “I should have been forced to appeal the verdict, which would mean Fergus being taken to prison in New Bern, and a new trial scheduled there. The end of it would have been the same—but it would have taken both Fergus and myself off the land for most of the harvest season, and cost me more in fees than the harvest will bring.”

He looked at Brianna over the rim of his cup, blue eyes suddenly serious.

“You’ll no be thinking me rich, I hope?” he asked.

“I hadn’t thought of it at all,” she replied, startled, and he smiled.

“That’s as well,” he said, “for while I’ve a good bit of land, there’s little of it under cultivation as yet; we’ve enough—barely—to seed the fields and feed ourselves, wi’ a bit left over for the cattle. And capable as your mother is”—the smile widened—“she canna bring in thirty acres of corn and barley by herself.” He set down his empty cup and stood up.

“Ian, will ye see to the supplies and drive up the wagon with Fergus and Marsali? The lass and I will go ahead, I think.” He glanced down at Brianna questioningly.

“Jocasta will care for your wee maid here. Ye dinna mind going so soon?”

“No,” she said, putting down her cup and standing up too. “Can we go today?”

I took down the bottles from the cupboard, one by one, uncorking one now and then to sniff at the contents. If not thoroughly dry before storage, fleshy-leaved herbs would rot in the bottle; seeds would grow exotic molds.

The thought of molds made me think once more of my penicillin plantation. Or what I hoped might one day be one, were I lucky enough, and observant enough to know my luck. Of the hundreds of molds that grew easily on stale, damp bread, Penicillium was only one. What were the odds of a stray spore of that one precious mold taking root on the slices of bread I laid out weekly? What were the odds of an exposed slice of bread surviving long enough for any spores to find it? And lastly, what were the odds that I would recognize it if I saw it?

I had been trying for more than a year, with no success so far.

Even with the marigolds and yarrow I scattered for repellency, it was impossible to keep the vermin away. Mice and rats, ants and cockroaches; one day I had even found a party of burglarious squirrels in the pantry, holding riot over scattered corn and the gnawed ruins of half my seed potatoes.

The only recourse was to lock all edibles in the big hutch Jamie had built—that, or keep them in thick wooden casks or lidded jars, resistent to the efforts of tooth and claw. But to seal food away from four-footed thieves was also to seal it away from the air—and the air was the only messenger that might one day bring me a real weapon against disease.

Each of the plants carries an antidote to some illness—if we only knew what it was. I felt a renewed pang of loss when I thought of Nayawenne; not only for herself but for her knowledge. She had taught me only a fraction of the things she knew, and I regretted that most bitterly—though not as bitterly as the loss of my friend.

Still, I knew one thing she had not—the manifold virtues of that smallest of plants, the lowly bread mold. To find it would be difficult, to recognize it, and to use it, even more so. But I never doubted it was worth the search.

To leave bread exposed in the house was to draw the mice and rats inside. I had tried setting it on the sideboard—Ian had absentmindedly consumed half of my budding antibiotic incubator, and mice and ants made short work of the rest while I was away from the house.

It was simply impossible, in summer, spring, or autumn, either to leave bread exposed and unguarded or to stay inside to look after it. There were too many urgent chores to be done outside, too many calls to attend births or illness, too much opportunity for foraging.

In the winter, of course, the vermin went away, to lay their eggs against the spring, and hibernate under a blanket of dead leaves, secure from the cold. But the air was cold, too; too cold to bring me living spores. The bread I laid out either curled and dried, or went soggy, depending on its distance from the fire; in either case, sporting nothing but the occasional orange or pink crust: the molds that lived in the crevices of the human body.

I would try again in the spring, I thought, sniffing at a bottle of dried marjoram. It was good; musky as incense, smelling of dreams. The new house on the ridge was already rising, foundation laid and rooms marked out. I could see the skeletal framework from the cabin door, black against the clear September sky on the ridge.

By the spring, it would be finished. I would have plastered walls and laid oak floors, glass windows with stout frames that kept out mice and ants—and a nice snug, sunny surgery in which to conduct my medical practice.

My glowing visions were interrupted by a raucous bellow from the penfold; Clarence announcing an arrival. I could hear voices in the distance, in between Clarence’s shrieks of ecstasy, and I hastily began to tidy away the scatter of corks and bottles. It must be Jamie returning with Fergus and Marsali—or at least I hoped so.

Jamie had been confident of the trial’s outcome, but I worried nonetheless. Raised to believe that British law in the abstract was one of the great achievements of civilization, I had seen a good deal too many of its concrete applications to have much faith in its avatars. On the other hand, I had quite a bit of faith in Jamie.

Clarence’s vocalizations had dropped to the wheezing gargle he used for intimate converse, but the voices had stopped. That was odd. Perhaps things had gone wrong after all?

I thrust the last of the bottles back into the cupboard and went to the door. The dooryard was empty. Clarence hee-hawed enthusiastically at my appearance, but nothing else moved. Someone had come, though—the chickens had scattered, fleeing into the bushes.

A brisk chill ran up my spine and I whirled, trying to look in front of me and over my shoulder at the same time. Nothing. The chestnut trees behind the house sighed in the breeze, a shimmer of sun filtered through their yellowing leaves.

I knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that I wasn’t alone. Damn, and I’d left my knife on the table inside!

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