Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 144


Claire would have told her, he supposed—all about Jack Randall, and the days before the Rising. Or perhaps not quite all. A small shiver that had nothing to do with cold ran up the crease of his spine, and he stepped back, away from her touch, though he still smiled at her.

“There’s bread in the hutch, and a little stew left in the kettle for you and Ian and Lizzie.” Claire reached up and flicked a stray wood chip from his hair. “Don’t eat the pudding in the pantry; that’s for supper.”

He caught her fingers in his and kissed her knuckles lightly. She looked surprised, and then a faint warm glow came up under her skin. She came up a-tiptoe and kissed his mouth, then hurried after Brianna, already at the edge of the clearing.

“Be careful!” he called after them. They waved, and disappeared into the woods, leaving him with their kisses soft on his face.

“Deo gratias,” he murmured again, watching them, and this time spoke with heartfelt gratitude. He waited until the last flicker of Brianna’s cloak had vanished, before returning to his work.

He sat on the chopping block, a handful of square-headed nails on the ground beside him, carefully driving them one at a time into the end of the ax handle with a small mallet. The dry wood split and spread, but held by the iron enclosure of the axhead, could not splinter.

He twisted the head, then finding it firm, stood up and brought the ax down in a mighty blow on the chopping block, by way of test. It held.

He was chilled now, from sitting, and pulled his shirt back on. He was hungry, too, but he would wait a bit for the young ones. Not but what they had likely stuffed themselves already, he thought cynically. He could almost smell the meat pies Sarah Woolam made, the rich scent twining in his memory through the actual autumn smells of dead leaves and damp earth.

The thought of meat pies lingered in his mind as he went on with his work, along with the thought of winter. The Indians said it would be hard, this winter, not like the last. How would it be, hunting in deep snow? It snowed in Scotland, of course, but often enough it lay light on the ground, and the trodden paths of the red deer showed black on the steep, bare mountainsides.

Last winter had been like that. But this wilderness was given to extremes. He had heard stories of snowfalls that lay six feet deep, valleys where a man might sink to his oxters, and ice that froze so thick on the creeks that a bear could walk across. He smiled a little grimly, thinking of bears. Well, and that would be eating for the whole winter if he could kill another, and the skin would not come amiss, either.

His thoughts drifted slowly into the rhythm of his work, one part of his mind dimly occupied with the words to “Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting,” while the other was taken up with a intriguingly vivid picture of Claire’s white skin, pale and intoxicant as Rhenish wine against the glossy black of a bearskin.

“Daddy’s gone to fetch a skin / To wrap his baby bunting in,” he murmured tunelessly under his breath.

He wondered just how much Claire had told Brianna. It was odd, though pleasant, their three-cornered way of talking; he and the lassie were a bit shy yet with each other—inclined to say personal things to Claire instead, confident that she would pass on their essence; their interpreter in this new and awkward language of the heart.

Thankful though he was for the miracle of his daughter, he wanted to make love to his wife in his bed again. It was getting overchilly to be having at it in the herb shed or the forest—though he would admit that floundering nak*d in the huge drifts of yellow chestnut leaves had a certain charm, even if it lacked dignity.

“Aye, well,” he muttered, smiling slightly to himself. “And when did a man ever worry for his dignity, doin’ that?”

He glanced thoughtfully at the pile of long, straight pine logs that lay at the side of the clearing, then at the sun. If Ian was quick enough returning, they might shape and notch a dozen or so before sunset.

Setting down the ax for a moment, he crossed to the house and began to pace out the dimensions of the new room he planned, to make do while the big house was a-building. She was a grown woman, Brianna—she should have a wee place of her own, to be private in, she and the maid. And if that restored his own privacy with Claire, well, so much the better, aye?

He heard the small crackling noises among the dried leaves in the yard, but didn’t turn round. There was a tiny cough behind him, like a squirrel sneezing.

“Mrs. Lizzie,” he said, eyes still on the ground. “And did ye enjoy your ride? I trust ye found all the Woolams well.” Where was Ian and the wagon? he wondered. He hadn’t heard it on the road below.

She didn’t speak, but made an inarticulate noise that made him swing round in surprise to look at her.

She was pale and pinch-faced and looked like a scared white mouse. This was not unusual; he knew he frightened her with his size and deep voice, and so he spoke gently to her, slowly, as he would have done to a mistreated dog.

“Have ye had an accident, lass? Has something come amiss wi’ the wagon or the horses?”

She shook her head, still wordless. Her eyes were nearly round, gray as the hem of her washed-out gown, and the tip of her nose had gone bright pink.

“Is Ian all right?” He didn’t want to upset her further, but she was beginning to alarm him. Something had happened, that was sure.

“I’m fine, Uncle. So are the horses.” Quiet as an Indian, Ian appeared round the corner of the cabin. He moved to Lizzie’s side, offering her the support of his presence, and she took his arm as though by reflex.

He glanced from one to the other; Ian was outwardly calm, but his inner agitation was plain to see.

“What’s happened?” he asked, more sharply than he’d intended. The lassie flinched.

“Ye’d better tell him,” Ian said. “There might not be much time.” He touched her shoulder in encouragement, and she seemed to take strength from his hand; she stood up straighter and bobbed her head.

“I—there was—I saw a man. At the mill, sir.”

She tried to speak further, but her nerve had dried up; the tip of her tongue protruded between her teeth with effort, but no words came out.

“She kent him, Uncle,” Ian said. He looked disturbed, but not afraid; excited, rather, in an unfamiliar way. “She’d seen him before—with Brianna.”

“Aye?” He tried to speak encouragingly, but the hair on the back of his neck was rising with premonition.

“At Wilmington,” Lizzie got out. “MacKenzie was his name; I heard a sailor call him so.”

Jamie glanced quickly at Ian, who shook his head.

“He didna give his place, but I dinna ken any from Leoch like him. I saw him and heard him speak; he’s maybe a Highlander, but schooled in the south, I’d say—an educated man.”

“And did this Mr. MacKenzie seem to know my daughter?” he asked. Lizzie nodded, frowning in concentration.

“Oh, aye, sir! And she kent him, too—she was afraid of him.”

“Afraid? Why?” He spoke sharply, and she blanched, but she was well started now, and the words came out, tripping and stumbling, but still coming.

“I dinna ken, sir. But she turned white when she saw him, sir, and let out a wee skelloch. Then she went red and white and red again—oh, she was fair upset, anyone could see it!”

“What did he do?”

“Why—why—nothing, then. He came close to her, and held her by the arms, and said to her that she must come awa’ with him. Everyone in the taproom was looking. She pulled herself away, white as my shift, but she said to me as it was all right, I was to wait, and she would come back. And—and then she went out with him.”

Lizzie drew in a quick breath and wiped the end of her nose, which had begun to drip.

“And ye let her go?”

The little bondmaid shrank back, cowering.

“Ooh, I should have gone after her, I ken weel I should, sir!” she cried, face twisted with misery. “But I was afraid, sir, and may God forgive me!”

With an effort, Jamie smoothed the frown from his face and spoke as patiently as he might.

“Aye, well. And what happened, then?”

“Oh, I went upstairs as she told me, and I lay in the bed, sir, prayin’ for all I was worth!”

“Well, that was verra helpful, I’m sure!”

“Uncle—” Ian’s voice was soft but not at all tentative, and his brown eyes were steady on Jamie’s. “She’s no but a wee lassie, Uncle; she did her best.”

Jamie rubbed his hand hard over his scalp.

“Aye,” he said. “Aye, I’m sorry, lass; I didna mean to bite your head off. But will ye no get on wi’ it?”

A hot pink spot had begun to burn on each of Lizzie’s cheeks.

“She—she didna come back till nearly dawn. And—and—”

Jamie had very little patience left, and no doubt it showed on his face.

“I could smell him on her,” she whispered, voice dropping almost to inaudibility. “His…seed.”

The surge of rage took him unaware, like a white-hot bolt of lightning through chest and belly. He felt half choked with it, but clamped it down tight, hoarding it like coals in a hearth.

“He bedded her, then; you’re sure of that?”

Thoroughly mortified at this bluntness, the little bondmaid could do no more than nod.

Lizzie was twisting her hands in the stuff of her gown, leaving her skirt all bunched and crumpled. Her paleness was replaced with a hot flush; she looked like one of Claire’s tomatoes. She couldn’t look at him, but hung her head, staring at the ground.

“Oh, sir. She’s wi’ child, can ye not see? It must be him—she was virgin when he took her. He’s come after her—and she’s afraid of him.”

Quite suddenly, he could see it, and felt the hairs rise all up his arms and shoulders. The autumn breeze struck cold through shirt and skin, and the rage turned to sickness. All the small things he had half seen and half thought, not allowing them to rise to the surface of his mind, came together at once in a logical pattern.

The look of her, and the way she acted; one moment lively and another lost in troubled thought. And the glow in her face that was not all from the sun. He knew the look of a woman breeding well enough; if he had known her before, he would have seen the change; but as it was…

Claire. Claire knew. The thought came to him, cold in its certainty. She knew her daughter, and she was a physician. She must know—and hadn’t told him.

“Are ye sure of this?” The coldness froze his rage. He could feel it stuck in his chest—a dangerous, jagged object that seemed to point in every direction.

Lizzie nodded, wordless, and blushed deeper, if such a thing were possible.

“I am her maid, sir,” she whispered, eyes on the ground.

“She means Brianna hasna had her courses in two months,” Ian provided matter-of-factly. The youngest of a family containing several older sisters, he was not constrained by Lizzie’s delicacy. “She’s sure.”

“I—I wouldna have said anything at all, sir,” the girl went on wretchedly. “Only, when I saw the man…”