Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 33

   

“As for Ian, perhaps I can pass him off as a bondsman I’ve taken on to be swineherd.”

Ian was one of those people whose clothes, no matter what their original quality, immediately look as though they had been salvaged from a rubbish tip. Half his hair had escaped from its green ribbon, and one bony elbow protruded from a rip in his new shirt, whose cuffs were already noticeably gray round the wrists.

“Captain Freeman says we’ll be there in no time!” he exclaimed, eyes shining with excitement as he leaned over the side, peering upriver in order to be first to sight our destination. “What d’ye think we’ll get for supper?”

Jamie surveyed his nephew with a marked lack of favor.

“I expect you’ll get table scraps, wi’ the dogs. Do ye not own a coat, Ian? Or a comb?”

“Oh, aye,” Ian said, glancing round vaguely, as though expecting one of these objects to materialize in front of him. “I’ve a coat here. Somewhere. I think.”

The coat was finally located under one of the benches, and extracted with some difficulty from the possession of Rollo, who had made a comfortable bed of it. After a quick brush to remove at least some of the dog hairs from the garment, Ian was forcibly inserted into it, and sat firmly down to have his hair combed and plaited while Jamie gave him a quick refresher course in manners, this consisting solely of the advice to keep his mouth shut as much as possible.

Ian nodded amiably.

“Will ye tell Great-auntie Jocasta about the pirates yourself, then?” he inquired.

Jamie glanced briefly at Captain Freeman’s scrawny back. It was futile to expect that such a story would not be told in every tavern in Cross Creek, as soon as they had left us. It would be a matter of days—hours perhaps—before it spread to River Run plantation.

“Aye, I’ll tell her,” he said. “But not just on the instant, Ian. Let her get accustomed to us, first.”

The mooring for River Run was some distance above Cross Creek, separated from the noise and reek of the town by several miles of tranquil tree-thick river. Having seen Jamie, Ian, and Fergus all rendered as handsome as water, comb, and ribbons could make them, I retired to the cabin, changed out of my grubby muslin, sponged myself hastily, and slipped into the cream silk I had worn to dinner with the Governor.

The soft fabric was light and cool against my skin. Perhaps a bit more formal than was usual for afternoon, but it was important to Jamie that we must look decent—especially now, after our encounter with the pirates—and my only alternatives were the filthy muslin or a clean but threadbare camlet gown that had traveled with me from Georgia.

There wasn’t a great deal to be done with my hair; I gave it a cursory stab with a comb, then tied it back off my neck, letting the ends curl up as they would. I needn’t trouble about jewelry, I thought ruefully, and rubbed my silver wedding ring to make it shine. I still avoided looking at my left hand, so nak*dly bare; if I didn’t look, I could still feel the imaginary weight of the gold upon it.

By the time I emerged from the cabin, the mooring was in sight. By contrast to the rickety fittings of most plantation moorings we had passed, River Run boasted a substantial and well-built wooden dock. A small black boy was sitting on the end of it, swinging bare legs in boredom. When he saw the Sally Ann’s approach, he leapt to his feet and tore off, presumably to announce our arrival.

Our homely craft bumped to a stop against the dock. From the screen of trees near the river, a brick walk swept up through a broad array of formal lawns and gardens, splitting in two to circle paired marble statues that stood in their own beds of flowers, then joining again and fanning out in a broad piazza in front of an imposing two-storied house, colonnaded and multichimneyed. At one side of the flower beds stood a miniature building, made of white marble—a mausoleum of some kind, I thought. I revised my opinions as to the suitability of the cream silk dress, and touched nervously at my hair.

I found her at once, among the people hurrying out of the house and down the walk. I would have known her for a MacKenzie, even if I hadn’t known who she was. She had the bold bones, the broad Viking cheekbones and high, smooth brow of her brothers, Colum and Dougal. And like her nephew, like her great-niece, she had the extraordinary height that marked them all as descendants of one blood.

A head higher than the bevy of black servants who surrounded her, she floated down the path from the house, hand on the arm of her butler, though a woman less in need of support I had seldom seen.

She was tall and she was quick, with a firm step at odds with the white of her hair. She might once have been as red as Jamie; her hair still held a tinge of ruddiness, having gone that rich soft white that redheads do, with the buttery patina of an old gold spoon.

There was a cry from one of the little boys in the vanguard, and two of them broke loose, galloping down the path toward the mooring, where they circled us, yapping like puppies. At first I couldn’t make out a word—it was only as Ian replied jocularly to them that I realized they were shouting in Gaelic.

I didn’t know whether Jamie had thought what to say or to do upon this first meeting, but in the event, he simply stepped forward, went up to Jocasta MacKenzie, and embraced her, saying, “Aunt—it’s Jamie.”

It was only as he released her and stepped back that I saw his face, with an expression I had never seen before; something between eagerness, joy, and awe. It occurred to me, with a small jolt of shock, that Jocasta MacKenzie must look very much like her elder sister—Jamie’s mother.

I thought she might have his deep blue eyes, though I couldn’t tell; they were blurred as she laughed through her tears, holding him by the sleeve, reaching up to touch his cheek, to smooth nonexistent strands of hair from his face.

“Jamie!” she said, over and over. “Jamie, wee Jamie! Oh, I’m glad ye’ve come, lad!” She reached up once more, and touched his hair, a look of amazement on her face.

“Blessed Bride, but he’s a giant! You’ll be as tall as my brother Dougal was, at least!”

The expression of happiness on his face faded slightly at that, but he kept his smile, turning her with him so she faced me.

“Auntie, may I present my wife? This is Claire.”

She put out a hand at once, beaming, and I took it between my own, feeling a small pang of recognition at the long, strong fingers; though her knuckles were slightly knobbed with age, her skin was soft and the feel of her grip was unnervingly like Brianna’s.

“I am so glad to meet ye, my dear,” she said, and drew me close to kiss my cheek. The scent of mint and verbena wafted strongly from her dress, and I felt oddly moved, as though I had suddenly come under the protection of some beneficent deity.

“So beautiful!” she said admiringly, long fingers stroking the sleeve of my dress.

“Thank you,” I said, but Ian and Fergus were coming up to be introduced in their turn. She greeted them both with embraces and endearments, laughing as Fergus kissed her hand in his best French manner.

“Come,” she said, breaking away at last, and wiping at her wet cheeks with the back of a hand. “Do come in, my dearies, and take a dish of tea, and some food. Ye’ll be famished, no doubt, after such a journey. Ulysses!” She turned, seeking, and her butler stepped forward, bowing low.

“Madame,” he said to me, and “Sir,” to Jamie. “Everything is ready, Miss Jo,” he said softly to his mistress, and offered her his arm.

As they started up the brick walk, Fergus turned to Ian and bowed, mimicking the butler’s courtly manner, then offered an arm in mockery. Ian kicked him neatly in the backside, and walked up the path, head turning from side to side to take in everything. His green ribbon had come undone, and was dangling halfway down his back.

Jamie snorted at the horseplay, but smiled nonetheless.

“Madame?” He put out an arm to me, and I took it, sweeping rather grandly up the path to the doors of River Run, flung wide to greet us.

The house was spacious and airy inside, with high ceilings and wide French doors in all the downstairs rooms. I caught a glimpse of silver and crystal as we passed a large formal dining room, and thought that on the evidence, Hector Cameron must have been a very successful planter indeed.

Jocasta led us to her private parlor, a smaller, more intimate room no less well furnished than the larger rooms, but which sported homely touches among the gleam of polished furniture and the glitter of ornaments. A large knitting basket full of yarn balls sat on a small table of polished wood, beside a glass vase spilling summer flowers and a small, ornate silver bell; a spinning wheel turned slowly by itself in the breeze from the open French doors.

The butler escorted us into the room, saw his mistress seated, then turned to a sideboard that held a collection of jugs and bottles.

“Ye’ll have a dram to celebrate your coming, Jamie?” Jocasta waved a long, slim hand in the direction of the sideboard. “I shouldna think ye’ll have tasted decent whisky since ye left Scotland, aye?”

Jamie laughed, sitting down opposite her.

“Indeed not, Aunt. And how d’ye come by it here?”

She shrugged and smiled, looking complacent.

“Your uncle had the luck to lay down a good stock, some years agone. He took half a shipload of wine and liquor in trade for a warehouse of tobacco, meaning to sell it—but then the Parliament passed an Act making it illegal for any but the Crown to sell any liquor stronger than ale in the Colonies, and so we ended with two hundred bottles o’ the stuff in the wine cellar!”

She stretched out her hand toward the table by her chair, not bothering to look. She didn’t need to; the butler set down a crystal tumbler softly, just where her fingers would touch it. Her hand closed around it, and she lifted it, passing it under her nose and sniffing, eyes closed in sensual delight.

“There’s a good bit left of it yet. A great deal more than I can guzzle by myself, I’ll tell ye!” She opened her eyes and smiled, lifting the tumbler toward us. “To you, nephew, and your dear wife—may ye find this house home! Slàinte!”

“Slàinte mbar!” Jamie answered, and we all drank.

It was good whisky; smooth as buttered silk and heartening as sunshine. I could feel it hit the pit of my stomach, take root, and spread up my backbone.

It seemed to have a similar effect on Jamie; I could see the slight frown between his brows ease, as his face relaxed.

“I shall have Ulysses write this night, to tell your sister that ye’ve come safe here,” Jocasta was saying. “She’ll have been sair worrit for her wee laddie, I’m sure, thinking of all the misfortunes that might have beset ye along the way.”

Jamie set down his glass and cleared his throat, steeling himself for the ordeal of confession.

“As to misfortune, Aunt, I am afraid I must tell ye…”

I looked away, not wanting to increase his discomfort by watching as he explained concisely the dismal state of our fortunes. Jocasta listened with close attention, uttering small noises of dismay at his account of our meeting with the pirates. “Wicked, ah, wicked!” she exclaimed. “To repay your kindness in such fashion! The man should be hangit!”

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