Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 152

   

“There is body, and there is soul, Sassenach,” he said, speaking slowly, ordering his ideas with his words. “You’re a physician; ye’ll ken the one well. But the other is more important.”

I opened my mouth to say that I knew that as well as he did, if not better—but then shut it without saying anything. He didn’t notice; he wasn’t seeing the dark cornfield, or the maple wood with its leaves gone silver with moonlight. His eyes were fixed on a small room with thick stone walls, furnished with a table and stools and a lamp. And a bed.

“Randall,” he said, and his voice was meditative. “The most of what he did to me—I could have stood it.” He spread out the fingers of his right hand; the dressing on the cracked finger shone white.

“I would have been afraid, been hurt; I would have meant to kill him for doing it. But I could have lived, after, and not felt his touch always on my skin, felt filthy in myself—were it not that he wasna satisfied with my body. He wanted my soul—and he had it.” The white bandage vanished as his fist folded.

“Aye, well—ye ken all that.” He turned away abruptly and began to walk. I had to scurry to catch him up.

“What I am saying, I suppose, is—was this man a stranger to her, who only took her for a moment’s pleasure? If it was only her body that he wanted…then I think she will heal.”

He took a deep breath and let it out again; I saw the faint white mist surround his head for a moment, the steam of his anger made visible.

“But if he knew her—was close enough to want her, and not just any woman—then perhaps it might be that he could touch her soul, and do real damage—”

“You don’t think he did real damage?” My voice rose, despite myself. “Whether he knew her or not—”

“It is different, I tell ye!”

“No, it’s not. I know what you mean—”

“You don’t!”

“I do! But why—”

“Because it is not your body that matters when I take you,” he said. “And ye ken that well enough, Sassenach!”

He turned and kissed me fiercely, taking me completely by surprise. He crushed my lips against my teeth, then took my whole mouth with his, half biting, demanding.

I knew what he wanted of me; the same thing I wanted so desperately of him—reassurance. But neither of us had it to give, tonight.

His fingers dug into my shoulders, slid upward and grasped my neck. The hairs rose up on my arms as he pressed me to him—and then he stopped.

“I can’t,” he said. He squeezed my neck hard, and then let go. His breath came raggedly. “I can’t.”

He stepped back and turned away from me, groping for the fence rail before him as though blind. He grasped the wood hard with both hands, and stood there, eyes closed.

I was shaking, my legs gone watery. I wrapped my arms around myself under my cloak and sat down at his feet. And waited, my heart beating painfully loud in my ears. The night wind moved through the trees on the ridge, murmuring through the pines. Somewhere, far away in the dark hills, a panther screamed, sounding like a woman.

“It’s not that I dinna want ye,” he said at last, and I caught the faint rustle of his coat as he turned toward me. He stood for a moment, head bowed, his bound hair gleaming in the moonlight, face hidden by the darkness, with the moon behind him. At last he leaned down and took my hand in his bruised one, lifting me to my feet.

“I want ye maybe more than I ever have,” he said quietly. “And Christ! I do need ye, Claire. But I canna bear even to think of myself as a man just now. I cannot touch you, and think of what he—I can’t.”

I touched his arm.

“I do understand,” I said, and did. I was glad that he hadn’t asked for the details; I wished I didn’t know them. How would it be, to make love with him, envisioning all the time an act identical in its motions, but utterly different in its essence?

“I understand, Jamie,” I said again.

He opened his eyes and looked at me.

“Aye, ye do, don’t you? And that’s what I mean.” He took my arm and drew me close to him.

“You could tear me limb from limb, Claire, without touching me,” he whispered, “for ye know me.” His fingers touched the side of my face. They were cold, and stiff. “And I could do the same to you.”

“You could,” I said, feeling a little faint. “But I really wish you wouldn’t.”

He smiled a little at that, bent and kissed me, very gently. We stood together, barely touching save our lips, breathing each other’s breath.

Yes, we said silently to each other. Yes, I am still here. It was not rescue, but at least a tiny lifeline, stretched across the gulf that lay between us. I did know what he meant, about the difference between damage to body or soul; what I couldn’t explain to him was the link between the two that centered in the womb. At last I stepped back, looking up at him.

“Bree’s a very strong person,” I said quietly. “Like you.”

“Like me?” He gave a small snort. “God help her, then.”

He sighed, then turned and began to walk slowly along the line of the fence. I followed, hurrying a little to catch up.

“This man, this Roger she speaks of. Will he stand by her?” he asked abruptly.

I took a deep breath and let it out slowly, not knowing how to answer. I’d known Roger only a few months. I liked him; was very fond of him, in fact. From everything I knew of him, he was a thoroughly decent, honorable young man—but how could I even pretend to know what he might think, do, or feel, upon finding that Brianna had been raped? Even worse, that she might well carry the rapist’s child?

The best of men might not be able to deal with such a situation; in my years as a doctor, I had seen even well-established marriages shatter under the strain of smaller things. And those that did not shatter, but were crippled by mistrust…involuntarily, I pressed a hand against my leg, feeling the tiny hardness of the gold circle in my pocket. From F. to C. with love. Always.

“Would you do it?” I said at last. “If it were me?”

He glanced at me sharply, and opened his mouth as though to speak. Then he closed it and looked at me, searching my face, his brows knotted with troubled thought.

“I meant to say ‘Aye, of course!’ ” he said slowly, at last. “But I did promise ye honesty once, did I not?”

“You did,” I said, and felt my heart sink beneath its guilty burden. How could I force him to honesty when I couldn’t give it him back? And yet he had asked.

He struck the fencepost a light blow with his fist.

“Ifrinn! Yes, damn it—I would. You would be mine, even if the child was not. And if you—yes. I would,” he repeated firmly. “I should take you, and the child with ye, and damn the whole world!”

“And never think about it afterward?” I asked. “Never let it come into your mind when you came to my bed? Never see the father when you looked at the child? Never throw it back at me or let it make a difference between us?”

He opened his mouth to reply, but closed it without speaking. Then I saw a change come over his features, a sudden shock of sick realization.

“Oh, Christ,” he said. “Frank. Not me. It’s Frank ye mean.”

I nodded, and he gripped my shoulders.

“What did he do to ye?” he demanded. “What? Tell me, Claire!”

“He stood by me,” I said, sounding choked even to my own ears. “I tried to make him go, but he wouldn’t. And when the baby—when Brianna came—he loved her, Jamie. He wasn’t sure, he didn’t think he could—neither did I—but he truly did. I’m sorry,” I added.

He took a deep breath and let go of my shoulders.

“Dinna be sorry for that, Sassenach,” he said gruffly. “Never.” He rubbed a hand across his face, and I could hear the faint rasp of his evening stubble.

“And what about you, Sassenach?” he said. “What ye said—when he came to your bed. Did he think—” He broke off abruptly, leaving all the questions hanging in the air between us, unstated, but asked nonetheless.

“It might have been me—my fault, I mean,” I said at last, into the silence. “I couldn’t forget, you see. If I could…it might have been different.” I should have stopped there, but I couldn’t; the words that had been dammed up all evening rushed out in a flood.

“It might have been easier—better—for him if it had been rape. That’s what they told him, you know—the doctors; that I had been raped and abused, and was having delusions. That’s what everyone believed, but I kept saying to him, no it wasn’t that way, I insisted on telling him the truth. And after a time—he believed me, at least halfway. And that was the trouble; not that I’d had another man’s child—but that I’d loved you. And I wouldn’t stop. I couldn’t,” I added, in a softer tone. “He was better than me, Frank was. He could put the past away, at least for Bree’s sake. But for me—” The words caught in my throat and I stopped.

He turned then, and looked at me for a long time, his face quite expressionless, eyes hidden by the shadows of his brows.

“And so ye lived twenty years with a man who couldna forgive ye for what was never your fault? I did that to ye, no?” he said. “I am sorry, too, Sassenach.”

A small breath escaped me, not quite a sob.

“You said you could tear me limb from limb without touching me,” I said. “You were right, damn you.”

“I am sorry,” he whispered again, but this time he reached for me, and held me tight against him.

“That I loved you? Don’t be sorry for that,” I said, my voice half muffled in his shirt. “Not ever.”

He didn’t answer, but bent his head and pressed his cheek against my hair. It was quiet; I could hear his heart beating, over and under the wind in the trees. My skin was cold; the tears on my cheeks chilled instantly.

At last I let my arms drop from around him and stepped back.

“We’d better go back to the house,” I said, trying for a normal tone. “It’s getting awfully late.”

“Aye, I suppose so.” He offered me his arm, and I took it. We passed in an easier silence down the path to the edge of the gorge above the stream. It was cold enough that tiny ice crystals glinted among the rocks where the starlight struck them, but the creek was far from frozen. Its gurgle and rush filled the air, and kept us from being too quiet.

“Aye, well,” he said, as we turned up the path past the pigsty. “I hope Roger Wakefield is a better man than the two of us—Frank and I.” He glanced at me. “Mind ye, if he’s not, I shall beat him to a pudding.”

Despite myself I laughed.

“That will be a great help to the situation, I’m sure.”

He snorted briefly and walked on. At the bottom of the hill, we turned without speaking, and came back in the direction of the house. Just short of the path that led to the door, I stopped him.

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