Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 19

   

Mr. Myers looked at Jamie’s red hair with interest.

“Scotch, are you? Be you one of them Highlander fellows?”

“I am a Scotsman, aye, and a Highlander.”

“Be you kin to Old Hector Cameron?”

“He is my uncle by marriage, sir, though I have not met him myself. I was told that he was well known to you, and that you might consent to guide my party to his plantation.”

The two men were frankly sizing each other up, eyes flicking head to toe as they talked, appraising bearing, dress, and armament. Jamie’s eyes rested approvingly on the long sheath-knife at the woodsman’s belt, while Mr. Myers’s nostrils flared wide with interest.

“Comme deux chiens,” Fergus remarked softly behind me. Like two dogs. “…aux culs.” Next thing you know, they will be smelling each other’s backside.

Mr. Myers darted a glance at Fergus, and I saw a quick flash of amusement in the hazel depths before he returned to his assessment of Jamie. Uncultured the woodsman might be, but he plainly had some working knowledge of French.

Given Mr. Myers’s olfactory inclinations and lack of self-consciousness, I might not have been surprised to see him drop to all fours and perform in the manner Fergus had suggested. As it was, he contented himself with a careful inspection that took in not only Jamie but Ian, Fergus, myself, and Rollo.

“Nice dawg,” he said casually, holding out a set of massive knuckles to the latter. Rollo, thus invited, instituted his own inspection, sniffing industriously from moccasins to breechclout as the conversation went on.

“Your uncle, eh? Does he know you’re coming?”

Jamie shook his head.

“I canna say. I sent a letter from Georgia, a month ago, but I’ve no way to tell whether he’s had it yet.”

“I shouldn’t think so,” Myers said thoughtfully. His eyes lingered on Jamie’s face, then passed swiftly over the rest of us.

“I’ve met your wife. This’ll be your son?” He nodded at Ian.

“My nephew, Ian. My foster son, Fergus.” Jamie made the introductions with a wave of his hand. “And a friend, Duncan Innes, who’ll be along presently.”

Myers grunted, nodding, and made up his mind.

“Well, I should reckon I can get you to Cameron’s all right. Wanted to be sure you was kin, but you got the look of the widder Cameron, in the face. The boy some, too.”

Jamie’s head jerked up sharply.

“The widow Cameron?”

A sly smile flitted through the thicket of beard.

“Old Hector caught the morbid sore throat, up and died late last winter. Don’t figure they get much mail, wherever he is now.”

Abandoning the Camerons for matters of more immediate personal interest, Myers resumed his interrupted excavations.

“Big purple thing,” he explained to me, fumbling his loosened thong. “Almost as big as one o’ my balls. You don’t think it might could be as I’ve decided sudden-like to grow an extry, do you?”

“Well, no,” I said, biting my lip. “I really doubt it.” He moved very slowly, but had almost got the knot in his thong undone; people in the street were beginning to pause, staring.

“Please don’t trouble yourself,” I said. “I do believe I know what that is—it’s an inguinal hernia.”

The wide hazel eyes got wider.

“It is?” He seemed impressed, and not at all displeased by the news.

“I’d have to look—somewhere indoors, that is,” I added hastily “—to be sure, but it sounds like it. It’s quite easy to repair surgically, but…” I hesitated, looking up at the Colossus. “I really couldn’t—I mean, you’d need to be asleep. Unconscious,” I amplified. “I’d have to cut you, and sew you up again, you see. Perhaps a truss—a brace—might be better, though.”

Myers scratched slowly at his jaw, meditating.

“No, I done tried that, ’twon’t do. Cuttin’, though…You folks be staying here in the town for a spell before you head up to Cameron’s?”

“Not long,” Jamie interrupted firmly. “We shall be sailing upriver to my aunt’s estate, as soon as passage can be arranged.”

“Oh.” The giant pondered this for a moment, then nodded, beaming.

“I know the very man for you, sir. I’ll go this minute and fetch Josh Freeman out the Sailor’s Rest. Sun’s still high, he’ll be not too drunk to do business yet.” He swept me a bow, battered hat to his middle. “And then could be your wife might have the kindness to meet me in yonder tavern—it’s a mite more genteel than the Sailor’s—and have a look at this…this…” I saw his lips try to form themselves around “inguinal hernia,” then give up the effort and relax. “This yere obstruction.”

He clapped the hat back on his head, and with a nod to Jamie, was off.

Jamie watched the mountain man’s stiff-legged retreat down the street, slowed by cordial greetings to all he passed.

“What is it about ye, Sassenach, I wonder?” he said conversationally, eyes still fixed on Myers.

“What is what about me?”

He turned then, and gave me a narrow eye.

“What it is that makes every man ye meet want to take off his breeks within five minutes of meetin’ ye.”

Fergus choked slightly, and Ian went pink. I looked as demure as possible.

“Well, if you don’t know, my dear,” I said, “no one does. I seem to have found us a boat. And what have you been up to this morning?”

Industrious as always, Jamie had found us a potential gem-buyer. And not only a buyer, but an invitation to dinner with the Governor.

“Governor Tryon’s in the town just now,” he explained. “Staying at the house of a Mr. Lillington. I talked this morning wi’ a merchant named Mac-Eachern, who put me on to a man named MacLeod, who—”

“Who introduced you to MacNeil, who took you to drink with MacGregor, who told you all about his nephew Bethune, who’s the second cousin half removed of the boy who cleans the Governor’s boots,” I suggested, familiar by this time with the Byzantine pathways of Scottish business dealings.

Put two Highland Scots in a room together, and within ten minutes they would know each other’s family histories for the last two hundred years, and have discovered a helpful number of mutual relatives and acquaintances.

Jamie grinned.

“It was the Governor’s wife’s secretary,” he corrected, “and his name’s Murray. That’ll be your Da’s cousin Maggie’s eldest boy from Loch Linnhe,” he added, to Ian. “His father emigrated after the Rising.” Ian nodded casually, doubtless docketing the information in his own version of the genetic encyclopedia, stored against the day it would prove useful.

Edwin Murray, the Governor’s wife’s secretary, had welcomed Jamie warmly as a kinsman—if only by marriage—and had obtained an invitation for us to dine at Lillington’s that night, there ostensibly to acquaint the Governor with matters of trade in the Indies. In reality, we were intending to acquaint ourselves with Baron Penzler—a well-to-do German nobleman who would be dining there as well. The Baron was a man not only of wealth but of taste, with a reputation as a collector of fine objects.

“Well, it sounds a good idea,” I said dubiously. “But I think you’d better go alone. I can’t be dining with governors looking like this.”

“Ah, ye look f—” His voice faded as he actually looked at me. His eye roamed slowly over me, taking in my grimy, bedraggled gown, wild hair and ragged bonnet.

He frowned at me. “No, I want ye there, Sassenach; I may need a distraction.”

“Speaking of distraction, how many pints did it take you to wangle an invitation to dinner?” I asked, mindful of our dwindling finances. Jamie didn’t blink, but took my arm, turning me toward the row of shops.

“Six, but he paid half. Come along, Sassenach; dinner’s at seven, and we must find ye something decent to wear.”

“But we can’t afford—”

“It’s an investment,” he said firmly. “And besides, Cousin Edwin has advanced me a bit against the sale of a stone.”

The gown was two years out of fashion by the cosmopolitan standards of Jamaica but it was clean, which was the main thing so far as I was concerned.

“You’re dripping, madame.” The sempstress’s voice was cold. A small, spare woman of middle age, she was the preeminent dressmaker in Wilmington and—I gathered—accustomed to having her fashion dictates obeyed without question. My rejection of a frilled cap in favor of freshly washed hair had been received with bad grace and predictions of pleurisy, and the pins she held in her mouth bristled like porcupine quills at my insistence on replacing the normal heavy corsetry with light boning, scalloped at the top to lift the br**sts without pinching them.

“Sorry.” I tucked up the offending wet lock inside the linen towel that wrapped my head.

The guest quarters of Mr. Lillington’s great house being fully occupied by the Governor’s party, I had been relegated to Cousin Edwin’s tiny attic over the stable block, and the fitting of my gown was being accomplished to the accompaniment of muffled stampings and chewings from below, punctuated by the monotonous strains of the groom’s whistling as he mucked out the stalls.

Still, I was not inclined to complain; Mr. Lillington’s stables were a deal cleaner than the inn where Jamie and I had left our companions, and Mrs. Lillington had very graciously seen me provided with a large basin of hot water and a ball of lavender-scented soap—a consideration more important even than the fresh dress. I hoped never to see another peach.

I rose slightly on my toes, trying to see out of the window in case Jamie should be coming, but desisted at a grunt of protest from the sempstress, who was trying to adjust the hem of my skirt.

The gown itself was not at all bad; it was of cream silk, half-sleeved and very simple, but with panniers of wine-striped silk over the hips, and a ruching of claret-colored silk piping that ran in two rows from waist to bosom. With the Brussels lace I had purchased sewn around the sleeves, I thought it would do, even if the cloth was not quite of the first quality.

I had at first been surprised at the price, which was remarkably low, but now observed that the fabric of the dress was coarser than usual, with occasional slubs of thickened thread that caught the light in shimmers. Curious, I rubbed it between my fingers. I was no great judge of silk, but a Chinese acquaintance had spent most of one idle afternoon on board a ship explaining to me the lore of silkworms, and the subtle variation of their output.

“Where does this silk come from?” I asked. “It isn’t China silk; is it French?”

The sempstress looked up, her crossness temporarily relieved by interest.

“No, indeed it’s not. That’s made in South Carolina, that is. There’s a lady, Mrs. Pinckney by name, has gone and put half her land to mulberry trees, and went to raising silkworms on ’em. The cloth’s maybe not quite so fine as the China,” she acknowledged reluctantly, “but ’tisn’t but half the cost, either.”

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