Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 34

   

“Well, there’s none to blame save myself, Aunt,” Jamie said ruefully. “He would have been hangit, if not for me. And since I did ken the man for a villain to start, I canna be much surprised to see him commit villainy at the end.”

“Mmphm.” Jocasta drew herself up taller in her seat, looking a bit over Jamie’s left shoulder as she spoke.

“Be that as it may, nephew. I said ye must consider River Run as your home; I did mean it. You and yours are welcome here. And I am sure we shall contrive a way to mend your fortunes.”

“I thank ye, Aunt,” Jamie murmured, but he didn’t want to meet her eyes, either. He looked down at the floor, and I could see the hand around his whisky glass clenched tight enough to leave the knuckles white.

The conversation fortunately moved on to talk of Jenny and her family at Lallybroch, and Jamie’s embarrassment eased a bit. Dinner had been ordered; I could smell brief tantalizing whiffs of roasting meat from the cookhouse, borne on the evening breeze that wafted across the lawns and flower beds.

Fergus got up and tactfully excused himself, while Ian wandered around the room, picking things up and putting them down. Rollo, bored with the indoors, sniffed his way industriously along the doorsill, watched with open dislike by the fastidious butler.

The house and all its furnishings were simple but well crafted, beautiful, and arranged with something more than just taste. I realized what lay behind the elegant proportions and graceful arrangements, when Ian stopped abruptly by a large painting on the wall.

“Auntie Jocasta!” he exclaimed, turning eagerly to face her. “Did you paint this? It’s got your name on it.”

I thought a sudden shadow crossed her face, but then she smiled again.

“The view o’ the mountains? Aye, I always loved the sight of them. I’d go with Hector, when he went up into the backcountry to trade for hides. We’d camp in the mountains, and set up a great blaze of a bonfire, wi’ the servants keeping it going day and night, as a signal. And within a few days, the red savages would come down through the forest, and sit by the fire to talk and to drink whisky and trade—and I, I would sit by the hour wi’ my sketchbook and my charcoals, drawing everything I could see.”

She turned, nodding toward the far end of the room.

“Go and look at that one in the corner, laddie. See can ye find the Indian I put in it, hiding in the trees.”

Jocasta finished her whisky and set down her glass. The butler offered to refill it, but she waved him away without looking at him. He set down the decanter and vanished quietly into the hall.

“Aye, I loved the sight o’ the mountains,” Jocasta said again, softly. “They’re none so black and barren as Scotland, but the sun on the rocks and the mist in the trees did remind me of Leoch, now and then.”

She shook her head then, and smiled a bit too brightly at Jamie.

“But this has been home for a long time now, nephew—and I hope ye will consider it yours as well.”

We had little other choice, but Jamie bobbed his head, murmuring something dutifully appreciative in reply. He was interrupted, though, by Rollo, who raised his head with a startled Wuff!

“What is it, dog?” said Ian, coming to stand by the big wolf-dog. “D’ye smell something?” Rollo was whining, staring out into the shadowy flower border and twitching his thick ruff with unease.

Jocasta turned her head toward the open door and sniffed audibly, fine nostrils flaring.

“It’s a skunk,” she said.

“A skunk!” Ian whirled to stare at her, appalled. “They come so close to the house?”

Jamie had got up in a hurry, and gone to peer out into the evening.

“I dinna see it yet,” he said. His hand groped automatically at his belt, but of course he wasn’t wearing a dirk with his good suit. He turned to Jocasta. “Have ye any weapons in the house, Aunt?”

Jocasta’s mouth hung open.

“Aye,” she said. “Plenty. But—”

“Jamie,” I said. “A skunk isn’t—”

Before either of us could finish, there was a sudden disturbance among the snapdragons in the herbaceous border, the tall stalks waving back and forth. Rollo snarled, and the hackles stood up on his neck.

“Rollo!” Ian glanced round for a makeshift weapon, seized the poker from the fireplace, and brandishing it above his head, made for the door.

“Wait, Ian!” Jamie grabbed his nephew’s upraised arm. “Look.” A wide grin spread across his face, and he pointed to the border. The snapdragons parted, and a fine, fat skunk strolled into view, handsomely striped in black and white, and obviously feeling that all was right with his personal world.

“That’s a skunk?” Ian asked incredulously. “Why, that’s no but a bittie wee stinkard like a polecat!” He wrinkled his nose, with a expression between amusement and disgust. “Phew! And here I thought it was a dangerous huge beastie!”

The skunk’s satisfied insouciance was too much for Rollo, who pounced forward, uttering a short, sharp bark. He feinted to and fro on the terrace, growling and making short lunges at the skunk, who looked annoyed at the racket.

“Ian,” I said, taking refuge behind Jamie. “Call off your dog. Skunks are dangerous.”

“They are?” Jamie turned a look of puzzlement on me. “But what—”

“Polecats only stink,” I explained. “Skunks—Ian, no! Let it alone, and come inside!” Ian, curious, had reached out and prodded the skunk with his poker. The skunk, offended at this unwarranted intimacy, stamped its feet and elevated its tail.

I heard the noise of a chair sliding back, and glanced behind me. Jocasta had stood up and was looking alarmed, but made no move to come to the door.

“What is it?” she said. “What are they doing?” To my surprise, she was staring into the room, turning her head from one side to the other, as though trying to locate someone in the dark.

Suddenly, the truth dawned on me: her hand on the butler’s arm, her touching Jamie’s face in greeting, the glass put ready for her grasp, and the shadow on her face when Ian talked of her painting. Jocasta Cameron was blind.

A strangled cry and a piercing yelp jerked me back to more pressing issues on the terrace. A tidal wave of acrid scent cascaded into the room, hit the floor, and boiled up around me like a mushroom cloud.

Choking and gasping, eyes watering from the reek, I groped blindly for Jamie, who was making breathless remarks in Gaelic. Above the cacophony of groaning and piteous yowling outside, I barely heard the small ting! of Jocasta’s bell behind me.

“Ulysses?” she said, sounding resigned. “Ye’d best tell Cook the dinner will be late.”

“It was luck that it’s summer, at least,” Jocasta said at breakfast next day. “Think if it had been winter and we had to keep the doors closed!” She laughed, showing teeth in surprisingly good condition for her age.

“Oh, aye,” Ian murmured. “Please, may I have more toast, ma’am?”

He and Rollo had been first soused in the river, then rubbed with tomatoes from the burgeoning vines that overgrew the necessary house out back. The odor-reducing properties of these fruits worked as well on skunk oil as on the lesser stinks of human waste, but in neither case was the neutralizing effect complete. Ian sat by himself at one end of the long table, next to an open French door, but I saw the maid who brought his toast to him wrinkle her nose unobtrusively as she set the plate before him.

Perhaps inspired by Ian’s proximity and a desire for open air, Jocasta suggested that we might ride out to the turpentine works in the forest above River Run.

“It’s a day’s journey there and back, but I think the weather will keep fine.” She turned toward the open French window, where bees hummed over a herbaceous border of goldenrod and phlox. “Hear them?” she said, turning her slightly off-kilter smile toward Jamie. “The bees do say it will be hot and fair.”

“You have keen ears, Madame Cameron,” Fergus said politely. “If I may be permitted to borrow a horse from your stable, though, I should prefer to go into the town, myself.” I knew he was dying to send word to Marsali in Jamaica; I had helped him to write a long letter the night before, describing our adventures and safe arrival. Rather than wait for a slave to take it with the week’s mail, he would much rather post it with his own hands.

“Indeed and ye may, Mr. Fergus,” Jocasta said graciously. She smiled round the table generally. “As I said, ye must all consider River Run as ye would your own home.”

Jocasta plainly meant to accompany us on the ride; she came down dressed in a habit of dark green muslin, the girl named Phaedre coming behind, carrying a hat trimmed to match with velvet ribbon. She paused in the hall, but instead of putting on the hat at once, she stood while Phaedre tied a strip of white linen firmly round her head, covering her eyes.

“I can see nothing but light,” she explained. “I canna make out objects at all. Still, the light of the sun causes me pain, so I must shield my eyes when venturing out. Are you ready, my dears?”

That answered some of my speculations concerning her blindness, though didn’t entirely assuage them. Retinitis pigmentosum? I wondered with interest, as I followed her down the wide front hall. Or perhaps macular degeneration, though glaucoma was perhaps the most likely possibility. Not for the first time—or the last, I was sure—my fingers curved around the handle of an invisible ophthalmoscope, itching to see what could not be seen with eyes alone.

To my surprise, when we went out to the stable block, a mare was standing ready saddled for Jocasta, rather than the carriage I had expected. The gift of charming horses ran strong in the MacKenzie line; the mare lifted her head and whickered at sight of her mistress, and Jocasta went to the horse at once, her face alight with pleasure.

“Ciamar a tha tu?” she said, stroking the soft Roman nose. “This will be my sweet Corinna. Is she not a dear lassie?” Reaching in her pocket, she pulled out a small green apple, which the horse accepted with delicate pleasure.

“And have they seen to your knee, mo chridhe?” Stooping, Jocasta ran a hand down the horse’s shoulder and leg to just inside the knee, finding and exploring a healing scar with expert fingers. “What say ye, nephew? Is she sound? Can she stand a day’s ride?”

Jamie clicked his tongue, and Corinna obligingly took a step toward him, clearly recognizing someone who spoke her language. He took a look at her leg, took her bridle in hand and with a word or two in soft Gaelic, urged her to walk. Then he pulled her to a halt, swung into the saddle, and trotted gently twice round the stableyard, coming to a stop by the waiting Jocasta.

“Aye,” he said, stepping down. “She’s canty enough, Aunt. What did her the injury?”

“Happen as it was a snake, sir,” said the groom, a young black man who had stood back, intently watching Jamie with the horse.

“Not a snakebite, surely?” I said, surprised. “It looks like a tear—as though she’d caught her leg on something.”

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