Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 175

   

“Why did he speak to you? Why has he given you that?” She nodded at my hand, and my fingers closed over the opal’s curve in reflex.

“I don’t know,” I said—but she had taken me unaware; I had had no time to prepare my face.

She fixed me with a piercing look. She knew I was lying, all right—and yet how could I tell her the truth? Tell her what Otter-Tooth—whatever his real name—had been? Much less that his prophecies were true.

“I think perhaps he was a part of my…family,” I said at last, thinking of what Pollyanne had told me about the ghosts of one’s ancestors. There was no telling from where—or when—he had come; he must, I supposed, be an ancestor or a descendant. If not of me, then of someone like me.

Tewaktenyonh sat up very straight at that, and looked at me in astonishment. Slowly the look faded, and she nodded.

“He has sent you to me to hear this. He was wrong,” she declared, with confidence. “My brother said that we must not speak of him; we must let him be forgotten. But a man is not forgotten, as long as there are two people left under the sky. One, to tell the story; the other, to hear it. So.”

She reached out and touched my hand, careful not to touch the stone. The glitter of moisture in her black eyes might have been from the tobacco smoke.

“I am one. You are the other. He is not forgotten.”

She motioned to the girl, who rose silently and brought us food and drink.

When I rose finally to go back to the longhouse where we were lodged, I glanced toward the drinking party. The ground was littered with snoring bodies, and the keg lay empty on its side. Two Spears lay peacefully on his back, a beatific smile creasing the wrinkles of his face. The girl, Ian, and Jamie were gone.

Jamie was outside, waiting for me. His breath rose white in the night air, and the scents of whisky and tobacco wafted from his plaid.

“You seemed to be having fun,” I said, taking his arm. “Any progress, do you think?”

“I think so.” We walked side by side across the big central clearing to the longhouse where we were lodged. “It went well. Ian was right, bless him; now they’ve seen this wee ceilidh did no harm, I think they’ll maybe be disposed to make the bargain.”

I glanced at the row of longhouses with their floating clouds of smoke, and the glow of firelight from smokeholes and doorways. Was Roger in one of them now? I counted automatically, as I did every day—seven months. The ground was thawing; if we traveled partway by river, we could perhaps make the trip in a month—six weeks at the most. Yes, if we left soon, we would be in time.

“And you, Sassenach? Ye seemed to be having a most earnest discussion wi’ the auld lady. Did she ken aught of that stone?”

“Yes. Come inside and I’ll tell you about it.”

He lifted the skin over the doorway, and I walked inside, the opal a solid weight in my hand. They hadn’t known what he had called it, but I did. The man called Otter-Tooth, who had come to raise a war, to save a nation—with silver fillings in his teeth. Yes, I knew what it was, the tika-ba.

His unused ticket back. My legacy.

58

LORD JOHN RETURNS

River Run, March 1770

Phaedre had brought a dress, one of Jocasta’s, yellow silk, very full in the skirt.

“We got better company tonight than ol’ Mr. Cooper or Lawyer Forbes,” Phaedre said with satisfaction. “We got us a real live lord, how ’bout that?”

She let down a huge armload of fabric on the bed and began to pull bits and pieces from the frothing billows, issuing instructions like a drill sergeant.

“Here, you strip off and put on these yere stays. You need somethin’ strong, keep that belly pushed down. Ain’t nobody but backcountry trash goes ’thout stays. Your auntie wasn’t blind as a bat, she’d ’a had you fitted out proper long since—long since. Then put on the stockins and garters—ain’t those pretty? I always did like that pair with the little bitty leaves on ’em—then we’ll tie on the petticoats, and then—”

“What lord?” Brianna took the proferred stays and frowned at them. “My God, what’s this made of, whalebones?”

“Uh-huh. Ain’t no cheap tin or iron for Miss Jo, surely not.” Phaedre burrowed like a terrier, frowning and muttering to herself. “Where that garter gone to?”

“I don’t need these. And what lord is it that’s coming?”

Phaedre straightened up, staring at Brianna over the folds of yellow silk.

“Don’t need ’em?” she said censoriously. “And you with a six-month belly? What you thinking of, girl, come into dinner all pooched out, and a lordship sittin’ by the soup a-gogglin’ at you through his eyeglass?”

Brianna couldn’t help smiling at this description, but replied with considerable dryness nonetheless.

“What difference would it make? The whole county knows by now that I’m having a baby. I wouldn’t be surprised if that circuit rider—Mr. Urmstone, is it? didn’t preach a sermon about me up on the Buttes.”

Phaedre uttered a short laugh.

“He did,” she said. “Two Sundays back. Mickey and Drusus was there—they thought it was right funny, but your auntie didn’t. She set Lawyer Forbes on to law him for the slander, but ol’ Reverend Urmstone, he said ’twasn’t slander if it was the truth.”

Brianna stared back at the maid.

“And just what did he say about me?”

Phaedre shook her head and resumed her rummaging.

“You don’ want to know,” she said darkly. “But be that as it might, whether the county knows ain’t the same thing as you flauntin’ your belly through the dining room and leavin’ his lordship in no doubt, so you put on them stays.”

Her authoritative tone left no room for argument. Brianna struggled resentfully into the stiff garment, and suffered Phaedre to lace it tight. Her waist was still slender, and the remaining bulge in front would be easily disguised by the full skirt and petticoats.

She stared at herself in the mirror, Phaedre’s dark head bobbing near her thighs as the maid adjusted the green silk stockings to her own satisfaction. She couldn’t breathe, and being squeezed like that couldn’t be good for the baby. The stays laced in front; as soon as Phaedre left, she’d undo them. The hell with his Lordship, whoever he was.

“And who is this lord we’re having for dinner?” she asked for the third time, stepping obediently into the billow of starched white linen the maid held for her.

“This be Lord John William Grey, of Mount Josiah plantation in Virginia.” Phaedre rolled out the syllables with great ceremony, though seeming rather disappointed by the unfortunately brief and simple names of the lord. She would, Brianna knew, have preferred a Lord FitzGerald Vanlandingham Walthamstead if she could have got one.

“He a friend of your daddy’s, or so Miss Jo says,” the maid added, more prosaically. “There, that’s good. Lucky you got nice bosoms, this dress is made for ’em.”

Brianna hoped this didn’t mean the dress wasn’t going to cover her br**sts; the stays ended just beneath, pushing them up so that they swelled startlingly high, like something bubbling over the rim of a pot. Her n**ples stared at her in the mirror, gone a rich dark color, like raspberry wine.

It wasn’t worry over which bulges she was exposing that made her oblivious to the rest of Phaedre’s brisk ministrations, though; it was the maid’s casual He a friend of your daddy’s.

It was not a crowd; Jocasta seldom had crowds. Dependent on her ears for the nuances of social byplay, she would not risk commotion. Still, there were more people here in the drawing room than was usual; Lawyer Forbes, of course, with his spinster sister; Mr. MacNeill and his son, Judge Alderdyce and his mother, a couple of Farquard Campbell’s unmarried sons. No one, though, resembling Phaedre’s lordship.

Brianna smiled sourly to herself. “Let ’em look, then,” she murmured, straightening her back so that her bulge swelled proudly before her, glistening under the silk. She gave it an encouraging pat. “Come on, Osbert, let’s be social.”

Her entrance was greeted by a general outcry of cordiality that made her mildly ashamed of her cynicism. They were kind men and women, including Jocasta; and the situation, after all, was none of their doing.

Still, she did enjoy the expression of mild shock that the Judge tried to hide, and the too-sweet smile on his mother’s face, as her beady little parrot eyes registered the blatant fact of Osbert’s unbound presence. Jocasta might propose, but the Judge’s mother would dispose, no doubt of that. Brianna met Mrs. Alderdyce’s eye with a sweet smile of her own.

Mr. MacNeill’s weatherbeaten face twitched slightly with amusement, but he bowed gravely and asked after her health with no sign of embarrassment. As for Lawyer Forbes, if he noticed anything amiss in her appearance, he drew the veil of his professional discretion over it and greeted her with his customary suavity.

“Ah, Miss Fraser!” he said. “Precisely whom we were wanting. Mrs. Alderdyce and myself have just been engaged in amiable dispute concerning a question of aesthetics. You, with your instinct for loveliness, would have a most valuable opinion, should you be willing to oblige me by giving it.” Taking her arm, he drew her smoothly to his side—away from MacNeill, who twitched a bushy brow at her but made no move to interfere.

He led her to the hearthside, where four small wooden boxes sat on the table. Ceremoniously removing the lids of these, the lawyer displayed in turn four jewels, each the size of a marrow-fat pea, each nestled in a pad of dark blue velvet, the better to set off its brilliance.

“I think of purchasing one of these stones,” Forbes explained. “To have made into a ring. I had them sent from Boston.” He smirked at Brianna, plainly feeling that he had stolen a march on the competition—and judging from the faint glower on MacNeill’s face, he had.

“Tell me, my dear—which do you prefer? The sapphire, the emerald, the topaz or the diamond?” He rocked back on his heels, waistcoat swelling with his own cleverness.

For the first time in her pregnancy, Brianna felt a sudden qualm of nausea. Her head felt light and giddy, and her fingertips tingled with numbness.

Sapphire, emerald, topaz, diamond. And her father’s ring held a ruby. Five stones of power, the points of a traveler’s pentagram, the guarantors of safe passage. For how many? Without thinking, she spread a hand protectively over her belly.

She realized the trap Forbes thought he was luring her toward. Let her make a choice and he would present her with the unmounted stone on the spot, a public proposal that would—he thought—force her either to accept him at once, or cause an unpleasant scene by rejecting him outright. Gerald Forbes really knew nothing about women, she thought.

“I—ah—I should not like to venture my own opinion without first hearing Mrs. Alderdyce’s choice,” she said, forcing a cordial smile and a nod toward the Judge’s mother, who looked both surprised and gratified by being so deferred to.

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