Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 23

   

“Aye, well, there was my grandsire, Old Simon. I suppose ye could say it was discretion that did for him, in the end.” I could hear both the smile and the edge in his voice. If he seldom spoke of the Jacobites and the events of the Rising, it didn’t mean he had forgotten; his conversation with the Governor had obviously brought them close to the surface of his mind tonight.

“I’d say that discretion and deceit are not necessarily the same things. And your grandfather had been asking for it for fifty years, at least,” I replied tartly. Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat, had died by beheading on Tower Hill—at the age of seventy-eight, after a lifetime of unparalleled chicanery, both personal and political. For all of that, I quite regretted the old rogue’s passing.

“Mmphm.” Jamie didn’t argue with me, but moved to stand beside me at the window. He breathed in deeply, as though smelling the thick perfume of the night.

I could see his face quite clearly in the dim glow of starlight. It was calm and smooth, but with an inward look, as though his eyes didn’t see what was before them, but something else entirely. The past? I wondered. Or the future?

“What did it say?” I asked suddenly. “The oath you swore.”

I felt rather than saw the movement of his shoulders, not quite a shrug.

“ ‘I, James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser, do swear, and as I shall answer to God at the great day of judgment, I have not, nor shall have, in my possession any gun, sword, pistol, or arm whatsoever, and never use tartan, plaid, or any part of the Highland garb; and if I do so, may I be cursed in my undertakings, family, and property.’ ” He took a deep breath, and went on, speaking precisely.

“ ‘May I never see my wife and children, father, mother or relations. May I be killed in battle as a coward, and lie without Christian burial, in a strange land, far from the graves of my forefathers and kindred; may all this come across me if I break my oath.’ ”

“And did you mind a lot?” I said, after a moment.

“No,” he said softly, still looking out at the night. “Not then. There are things worth dying or starving for—but not words.”

“Maybe not those words.”

He turned to look at me, features dim in starlight, but the hint of a smile visible on his mouth.

“Ye know of words that are?”

The gravestone had his name, but no date. I could stop him going back to Scotland, I thought. If I would.

I turned to face him, leaning back against the window frame.

“What about—‘I love you’?”

He reached out a hand and touched my face. A breath of air stirred past us, and I saw the small hairs rise along his arm.

“Aye,” he whispered. “That’ll do.”

There was a bird calling somewhere close at hand. A few clear notes, succeeded by an answer; a brief twitter, and then silence. The sky outside was still thick black, but the stars were less brilliant than before.

I turned over restlessly; I was nak*d, covered only by a linen sheet, but even in the small hours of the night, the air was warm and smothering, and the small depression in which I lay was damp.

I had tried to sleep, and could not. Even lovemaking, which normally could relax me into a bonelessly contented stupor, had this time left me only restless and sticky. At once excited and worried by the possibilities of the future—and unable to confide my disturbed feelings—I had felt separate from Jamie; estranged and detached, despite the closeness of our bodies.

I turned again, this time toward Jamie. He lay in his usual position, on his back, the sheet crumpled about his hips, hands gently folded over a flat stomach. His head was turned slightly on the pillow, his face relaxed in sleep. With the wide mouth gentled by slumber and the dark lashes long on his cheeks, in this dim light he looked about fourteen.

I wanted to touch him, though I wasn’t sure whether I meant to caress or to poke him. While he had given me physical release, he had taken my peace of mind, and I was irrationally envious of his effortless repose.

I did neither, though, and merely turned onto my back, where I lay with my eyes shut, grimly counting sheep—who disobliged me by being Scottish sheep, cantering merrily through a kirkyard, leaping the gravestones with g*y abandon.

“Is something troubling ye, Sassenach?” said a sleepy voice at my shoulder.

My eyes popped open.

“No,” I said, trying to sound equally drowsy. “I’m fine.”

There was a faint snort and a rustling of the chaff-filled mattress as he turned over.

“You’re a terrible liar, Sassenach. Ye’re thinking so loudly, I can hear ye from here.”

“You can’t hear people think!”

“Aye, I can. You, at least.” He chuckled and reached out a hand, which rested lazily on my thigh. “What is it—has the spiced crab given ye flatulence?”

“It has not!” I tried to twitch my leg away, but his hand clung like a limpet.

“Oh, good. What is it, then—ye’ve finally thought of a witty riposte to Mr. Wylie’s remarks about oysters?”

“No,” I said irritably. “If you must know, I was thinking about the offer Governor Tryon made you. Will you let go of my leg?”

“Ah,” he said, not letting go but sounding less sleepy. “Well, come to that, I was thinking on the matter a bit myself.”

“What do you think about it?” I gave up trying to detach his hand and rolled onto my elbow, facing him. The window was still dark, but the stars had dimmed visibly, faded by the distant approach of day.

“I wonder why he made it, for the one thing.”

“Really? But I thought he told you why.”

He gave a brief grunt.

“Well, he’s no offering me land for the sake of my bonny blue eyes, I’ll tell ye that.” He opened the eyes in question and cocked one brow at me. “Before I make a bargain, Sassenach, I want to know what’s on both sides of it, aye?”

“You don’t think he’s telling the truth? About Crown grants to help settle the land? But he said it’s been going on for thirty years,” I protested. “He couldn’t lie about something like that, surely.”

“No, that’s the truth,” he agreed. “So far as it goes. But bees that hae honey in their mouths hae stings in their tails, aye?” He scratched at his head and smoothed the loose hair out of his face, sighing.

“Ask yourself this, Sassenach,” he said. “Why me?”

“Well—because he wants a gentleman of substance and authority,” I said slowly. “He needs a good leader, which Cousin Edwin has obviously told him you are, and a fairly wealthy man—”

“Which I am not.”

“He doesn’t know that, though,” I protested.

“Doesn’t he?” he said cynically. “Cousin Edwin will ha’ told him as much as he knows—and the Governor kens well I was a Jacobite. True, there are a few who mended their fortunes in the Indies after the Rising, and I might be one o’ those—but he has nae reason to think so.”

“He knows you have some money,” I pointed out.

“Because of Penzler? Aye,” he said thoughtfully. “What else does he know about me?”

“Only what you told him at dinner, so far as I know. And he can’t have heard much about you from anyone else; after all, you’ve been in town less than a—what, you mean that’s it?” My voice rose in incredulity, and he smiled, a little grimly. The light was still far off, but moving closer, and his features were clearcut in the dimness.

“Aye, that’s it. I’ve connections to the Camerons, who are not only wealthy but well respected in the colony. But at the same time, I’m an incomer, wi’ few ties and no known loyalties here.”

“Except, perhaps, to the Governor who’s offering you a large tract of land,” I said slowly.

He didn’t reply at once, but rolled onto his back, still keeping a grip on my leg. His eyes were fastened on the dim whiteness of the plaster ceiling above, with its clouded garlands and ghostly cupids.

“I’ve known a German or two in my time, Sassenach,” he said, musing. His thumb began to move slowly, back and forth upon the tender flesh of my inner thigh. “I havena found them careless wi’ their money, be they Jew or Gentile. And while ye looked bonny as a white rose this evening, I canna think it was entirely your charms that made the gentleman offer me a hundred pounds more than the goldsmith did.”

He glanced at me. “Tryon is a soldier. He’ll ken me for one, too. And there was that wee bit of trouble with the Regulators two year past.”

My mind was so diverted by the possibilities intrinsic in this speech, that I was nearly unconscious of the increasing familiarity of the hand between my thighs.

“Who?”

“Oh, I forgot; ye wouldna have heard that part of the conversation—bein’ otherwise occupied with your host of admirers.”

I let that one pass in favor of finding out about the Regulators. These, it appeared, were a loose association of men, mostly from the rough backcountry of the colony, who had taken offense at what they perceived as capricious and inequitable—and now and then downright illegal—behavior on the part of the Crown’s appointed officials, the sheriffs, justices, tax collectors, and so on.

Feeling that their complaints were not sufficiently addressed by the Governor and Assembly, they had taken matters into their own hands. Sheriff’s deputies had been assaulted, justices of the peace marched from their houses by mobs and forced to resign.

A committee of Regulators had written to the Governor, imploring him to address the iniquities under which they suffered, and Tryon—a man of action and diplomacy—had replied soothingly, going so far as to replace one or two of the most corrupt sheriffs, and issue an official letter to the court officers, regarding seizure of effects.

“Stanhope said something about a Committee of Safety,” I said, interested. “But it sounded quite recent.”

“The trouble is damped down but not settled,” Jamie said, shrugging. “And damp powder may smolder for a long time, Sassenach, but once it catches, it goes off with an almighty bang.”

Would Tryon think it worth the investment, to buy the loyalty and obligation of an experienced soldier, himself in turn commanding the loyalty and service of the men under his sponsorship, all settled in a remote and troublesome area of the colony?

I would myself have called the prospect cheap, at the cost of a hundred pounds and a few measly acres of the King’s land. His Majesty had quite a lot of it, after all.

“So you’re thinking about it.” We were by this time facing each other, and my hand lay over his, not in restraint, but in acknowledgment.

He smiled lazily.

“I havena lived so long by believing everything I’m told, Sassenach. So perhaps I’ll take up the Governor’s kind offer, and perhaps I will not—but I want to know the hell of a lot more about it before I say, one way or the other.”

“Yes, it does seem a little odd—his making you such an offer on short acquaintance.”

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