Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 187

   

“Now, I know what you’re going to say,” she said firmly, “so don’t bother. Can you arrange for me to see him, before they take him to Wilmington? And before you say no, certainly not, ask yourself what I’ll do if you do say that.”

Having opened his mouth to say “No, certainly not,” Lord John shut it and contemplated her in silence for a moment.

“I don’t suppose you are intending to threaten me again, are you?” he asked conversationally. “Because if you are…”

“Of course not.” She had the grace to blush slightly at that.

“Well, then, I confess I do not see quite what you—”

“I’ll tell my aunt that Stephen Bonnet fathered my baby. And I’ll tell Farquard Campbell. And Gerald Forbes. And Judge Alderdyce. And then I’ll go down to the garrison headquarters—that must be where he is—and I’ll tell Sergeant Murchison. If he won’t let me in, I’ll go to Mr. Campbell for a writ to make him admit me. I have a right to see him.”

He looked at her narrowly, but he could see it was no idle threat. She sat there, solid and immobile as a piece of marble statuary, and just as susceptible of persuasion.

“You do not shrink from creating a monstrous scandal?” It was a rhetorical question; he sought only to buy himself a moment to think.

“No,” she said calmly. “What have I got to lose?” She lifted one eyebrow in a half-humorous quirk.

“I suppose you’d have to break our engagement. But if the whole county knows who the baby’s father is, I think that would have the same effect as the engagement, in terms of keeping men from wanting to marry me.”

“Your reputation—” he began, knowing it was hopeless.

“Is not real hot to start with. Though come to that, why should it be worse for me to be pregnant because I was raped by a pirate than because I was wanton, as my father so charmingly put it?” There was a small note of bitterness in her voice that stopped him from saying any more.

“Anyway, Aunt Jocasta isn’t likely to throw me out, just because I’m scandalous. I won’t starve; neither will the baby. And I can’t say I care whether the Misses MacNeill call on me or not.”

He took up his glass and drank again, carefully this time, with an eye on her to prevent further shocks. He was curious to know what had passed between her and her father—but not reckless enough to ask. Instead he put down the glass and asked, “Why?”

“Why?”

“Why do you feel you must speak with Bonnet? You say I do not know your feelings, which is undeniably true.” He allowed a tinge of wryness to creep into his voice. “Whatever they are, though, they must be exigent, to cause you to contemplate such drastic expedients.”

A slow smile grew on her lips, spreading into her eyes.

“I really like the way you talk,” she said.

“I am exceeding flattered. However, if you would contemplate answering my question…”

She sighed, deeply enough to make the flame of the candle flicker. She stood up, moving ponderously, and groped in the seam of her gown. She had evidently had a pocket sewn into it, for she extracted a small piece of paper, folded and worn with much handling.

“Read that,” she said, handing it to him. She turned away, and went to the far end of the room, where her paints and easel stood in a corner by the hearth.

The black letters struck him with a small jolt of familiarity. He had seen Jamie Fraser’s hand only once before, but once was enough; it was a distinctive scrawl.

Daughter—

I cannot say if I shall see you again. My fervent hope is that it shall be so, and that all may be mended between us, but that event must rest in the Hand of God. I write now in the event that He may will otherwise.

You asked me once whether it was right to kill in revenge of the great Wrong done you. I tell you that you must not. For the sake of your Soul, for the sake of your own Life, you must find the grace of forgiveness. Freedom is hardwon, but it is not the fruit of Murder.

Do not Fear that he will escape Vengeance. Such a man carries with him the seeds of his own Destruction. If he does not Die at my Hand, it will be by another. But it must not be your Hand that strikes him down.

Hear me, for the sake of the Love I bear you.

Below the text of the letter, he had written Your most affectionate and loving Father, James Fraser. This was scratched out, and below it was written simply, Da.

“I never said goodbye to him.”

Lord John looked up, startled. Her back was turned to him; she was staring at the half-finished landscape on the easel as though it were a window.

He crossed the carpet to stand beside her. The fire had burned down in the hearth, and it was growing cold in the room. She turned to face him, clutching her elbows against the chill.

“I want to be free,” she said quietly. “Whether Roger comes back or not. Whatever happens.”

The child was restless; he could see it kicking and squirming below her crossed arms, like a cat in a sack. He drew a deep breath, feeling chilled and apprehensive.

“You are sure you must see Bonnet?”

She gave him another of those long blue looks.

“I have to find a way to forgive him, Da says. I’ve been trying, ever since they left, but I can’t do it. Maybe if I see him, I can. I have to try.”

“All right.” He let his breath out in a long sigh, shoulders slumping in capitulation.

A small light—relief?—showed in her eyes, and he tried to smile back.

“You’ll do it?”

“Yes. God knows how, but I’ll do it.”

He put out all the candles save one, keeping that to light their way to bed. He gave her his arm and they walked in silence through the empty hall, the unpeopled quiet wrapping them in peace. At the foot of the stair, he paused, letting her go ahead of him.

“Brianna.”

She turned, questioning, on the stair above him. He stood hesitant, not knowing how to ask for what he suddenly wanted so badly. He reached out a hand, lightly poised.

“May I—?”

Without speaking, she took his hand and pressed it against her belly. It was warm and very firm. They stood quite still for a moment, her hand locked over his. Then it came, a small hard push against his hand, which sent a thrill through his heart.

“My God,” he said, in soft delight. “He’s real.”

Her eyes met his in rueful amusement.

“Yes,” she said. “I know.”

It was well past dark when they drove up beside the garrison headquarters. It was a small, unprepossessing little building, dwarfed by the loom of the warehouse behind it, and Brianna eyed it askance.

“They have him in there?” Her hands felt cold, in spite of being muffled under her cloak.

“No.” Lord John glanced around, as he got down to tie the horses. A light burned in the window, but the small dirt yard was empty, the narrow street silent and deserted. There were no houses or shops nearby, and the warehousemen had long since gone home to their suppers and their beds.

He reached up both hands to help her down; alighting from a wagon was easier than getting out of a carriage, but still no small task.

“He’s in the cellar below the warehouse,” he told her, his voice pitched low. “I’ve bribed the soldier on duty to admit us.”

“Not us,” she said, her voice pitched as low as his, but no less firm for that. “Me. I’ll see him alone.”

She saw his lips compress tightly for a moment, then relax as he nodded.

“Private Hodgepile assures me he is in chains, or I would not countenance such a suggestion. As it is…” He shrugged, half irritably, and took her arm to guide her over the rutted ground.

“Hodgepile?”

“Private Arvin Hodgepile. Why? Are you acquainted?”

She shook her head, holding her skirts out of the way with her free hand.

“No. I’ve heard the name, but—”

The door of the building opened, spilling light into the yard.

“That’ll be you, will it, my lord?” A soldier looked out warily. Hodgepile was slight and narrow-faced, tight-jointed as a marionette. He jerked, startled, as he saw her.

“Oh! I didn’t realize—”

“You needn’t.” Lord John’s voice was cool. “Show us the way, if you please.”

With an apprehensive glance at Brianna’s looming bulk, the private brought out a lantern, and led them to a small side door into the warehouse.

Hodgepile was short as well as slight, but held himself more erect than usual in compensation. He walks with a ramrod up his arse. Yes, she thought, watching him with interest as he marched ahead of them. It had to be the man Ronnie Sinclair had described to her mother. How many Hodgepiles could there be, after all? Perhaps she could talk to him when she’d finished with—her thoughts stopped abruptly as Hodgepile unlocked the warehouse door.

The April night was cool and fresh, but the air inside was thick with the reek of pitch and turpentine. Brianna felt suffocated. She could almost feel the tiny molecules of resin floating in the air, sticking to her skin. The sudden illusion of being trapped in a block of solidifying amber was so oppressive that she moved suddenly forward, almost dragging Lord John with her.

The warehouse was nearly full, its vast space crowded with bulky shapes. Kegs of pitch bled sticky black in the farthest shadows, while wooden racks near the huge double doors at the front held piles of barrels; brandy and rum, ready to roll down the ramps and out onto the dock, to barges waiting in the river below.

Private Hodgepile’s shadow stretched and shrank by turns as he passed between the towering ranks of casks and boxes, his steps muffled by the thick layer of sawdust on the floor.

“…must be careful of fire…” His high, thin voice floated back to her, and she saw his puppet shadow wave an etiolated hand. “You will be careful where you set the lantern, won’t you? Though there should be no danger, no danger at all down below…”

The warehouse was built out over the river, to facilitate loading, and the front part of the floor was wood; the back half of the building was brick-floored. Brianna heard the echo of their footsteps change as they crossed the boundary. Hodgepile paused by a trapdoor set into the bricks.

“You won’t be long, my lord?”

“No longer than we can help,” Lord John replied tersely. He took the lantern and waited in silence as Hodgepile heaved up the door and propped it. Brianna’s heart was beating heavily; she could feel each separate thump, like a blow to the chest.

A flight of redbrick stairs ran down into darkness. Hodgepile took out his ring of keys and counted them over in the pool of lantern light, making sure of the right one before descending. He squinted dubiously at Brianna, then motioned them to follow him.

“It’s a good thing they made the stairs wide enough for rum casks,” she murmured to Lord John, holding on to his arm as she edged herself down, one step at a time.

She could see at once why Private Hodgepile wasn’t worried about fire down here; the air was so damp, she wouldn’t have been surprised to see mushrooms sprouting from the walls. There was a sound of dripping water somewhere, and the light of the lantern shone off wet brick. Cockroaches scattered in panic from the light, and the air smelled of mold and mildew.

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