Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 38

   

Jamie squeezed her hand gently, assuring her that he held no grudge. Indeed, he was pleased to have come in time to help, and his aunt might count upon his assistance, in any way she chose to call upon him.

Mr. Campbell beamed and rang the bell; Ulysses brought in the special whisky, with a tray of crystal goblets and a plate of savories, and we drank confusion to the British Navy.

Looking at that fine-boned face, so full of blind eloquence, though, I couldn’t help recalling the brief synopsis Jamie had once given me of the outstanding characteristics of the members of his family.

“Frasers are stubborn as rocks,” he’d said. “And MacKenzies are charming as larks in the field—but sly as foxes, with it.”

“And where have you been?” Jamie asked, giving Fergus a hard up-and-down. “I didna think ye’d money enough for what it looks as though ye’ve been doing.”

Fergus smoothed his disheveled hair, and sat down, radiating offended dignity.

“I met with a pair of French fur-traders in the town. They speaking little English, and myself being fluent, I could not but agree to assist them in their transactions. If they should then choose to invite me to share a small supper at their inn…” He lifted one shoulder in Gallic dismissal of the matter, and turned to more immediate concerns, reaching inside his shirt for a letter.

“This had arrived in Cross Creek for you,” he said, handing it to Jamie. “The postmaster asked me to bring it.”

It was a thick packet of paper, with a battered seal, and looked in little better condition than did Fergus. Jamie’s face lighted when he saw it, though he opened it with some trepidation. Three letters fell out; one in what I recognized as his sister’s writing, the other two plainly addressed by someone else.

Jamie picked up the letter from his sister, eyed it as though it might contain something explosive, and set it gently down by the fruit bowl on the table.

“I’ll start wi’ Ian,” he said, picking up the second letter with a grin. “I’m not sure I want to be reading Jenny’s without a glass of whisky in my hand.”

He prised off the seal with the tip of the silver fruit knife, and opened the letter, scanning the first page. “I wonder if he…” His voice faded off as he began to read.

Curious, I got up and stood behind his chair, looking over his shoulder. Ian Murray wrote a clear, large hand, and it was easy to read, even at a distance.

Dear Brother—

All here are well, and give thanks to God for the news of your safe arrival in the Colonies. I send this missive in care of Jocasta Cameron; should it find you in her company, Jenny bids you to give her kindest regards to her Aunt.

You will see from the enclosed that you are restored to my wife’s good graces; she has quite ceased to talk of you in the same breath with Auld Scratch, and I have heard no recent references to Emasculation, which may relieve your mind.

To put aside jesting—her Heart is much lightened by news of Young Ian’s safety, as is my own. You will know the depth of our gratitude at his Deliverance, I think; therefore I will not Weary you with Repetitions, though in all truth, I could write a Novel upon that theme.

We manage to keep all here fed, though the barley suffered much from hail, and there is a flux abroad in the village which has claimed two children this month, to their parents’ sorrow. It will be Annie Fraser and Alasdair Kirby we have lost, may God have mercy on their innocence.

On a happier note, we have had word from Michael in Paris; he continues to prosper in the wine business, and thinks of marrying soon.

I take joy in acquainting you with news of the birth of my newest grandson, Anthony Brian Montgomery Lyle. I shall content myself with this announcement, leaving a fuller description to Jenny; she is besotted of him, as are we all, he is a Dear Lad. His father, Paul—Maggie’s husband—is a soldier, so Maggie and wee Anthony bide here at Lallybroch. Paul is in France at present; we pray nightly he may be left there, in relative peace, and not sent to the dangers of the Colonies nor the wilds of Canada.

We have had visitors this week; Simon, Lord Lovat, and his companions. He has come a-gathering again, seeking recruits for the Highland regiment he commands. You will perhaps hear of them in the Colonies, where I understand they have established some small reputation. Simon tells great tales of their bravery against the Indians and the wicked French, some of which are doubtless true.

Jamie grinned at this, and turned the page over.

He quite enthralled Henry and Matthew by his stories, and the girls as well. Josephine (“Kitty’s eldest,” Jamie observed in an aside to me) was so inspired, indeed, as to engineer a raid upon the chicken-coop, wherefrom she and her Cousins all emerged bedecked with feathers, mud from the kail-yard being employed in lieu of war-paint.

As all wished to play Savage, Young Jamie, Kitty’s husband Geordie and myself were pressed into service as the Highland regiment, and obliged to suffer attack by Tomahawk (kitchen spoons and ladles) and other forms of enthusiastic assault, we essaying meanwhile a valiant defense with our broadswords (pieces of lath and willow twigs).

I put a stop to the Suggestion that the thatch of the dove-cote be set afire with flaming arrows, but was obliged in the end to submit to being Scalped. I flatter myself that I survived this Operation in better case than did the chickens.

The letter continued in this vein, giving more news of family, but dealing more often with the business of the farm, and reports of events in the district. Emigration, Ian wrote, was “become epidemic,” with virtually all of the inhabitants of the village of Shewglie having decided upon this expedient.

Jamie finished the letter and put it down. He was smiling, his eyes faintly dreamy, as though he saw the cool mists and stones of Lallybroch rather than the humid, vivid jungle that surrounded us.

The second letter was also addressed in Ian’s hand, but marked Private below the blue wax seal.

“And what will this be, I wonder?” Jamie murmured, breaking the seal and unfolding it. It began without salutation, obviously meant as continuation to the larger letter.

Now, Brother, I have a matter of some concern to put to you, upon which I write separately, so that you might share my larger letter with Ian, without disclosing this matter.

Your last letter spoke of putting Ian aboard ship in Charleston. Should this have occurred, we will of course welcome his coming with joy. However, if by chance he has not yet quitted your company, it is our wish that he remain with you, should this obligation be not unpleasing to you and to Claire.

“Not unpleasing to me,” Jamie muttered, nostrils flaring slightly as he glanced from the page to the window. Ian and Rollo were wrestling on the grass with two young slaves, rolling over and over in a giggling tangle of limbs and cloth and wagging tail. “Mmphm.” He turned his back to the window and resumed reading.

I mentioned Simon Fraser to you, and the cause of his presence here. The regimental levies have been a matter of concern to us for some time, though the matter has not often been pressing, our location being fortunately remote and difficult of travel.

Lovat finds little trouble in inducing lads to take the King’s shilling; what is there for them here? Poverty and want, with no hope of betterment. Why should they remain here, where they have nothing to inherit, where they are forbidden the plaid or the right to carry a man’s weapons? Why should they not seize the chance of reclaiming the notion of manhood—even should it mean they wear the tartan and carry a sword in the service of a German usurper?

I think sometimes this is the worst of it; not only that murder and injustice have been loosed unchecked upon us, without hope of cure or recourse—but that our young men, our hope and future, should be thus piped away, squandered for the profit of the conqueror, and paid in the small coin of their pride.

Jamie looked up at me, one brow raised.

“Ye wouldna think to look at him that Ian had such poesy in him, aye?”

There was a break in the text here. When it resumed, toward the bottom of the page, the writing, which had sprawled above into an angry scrawl with frequent blots and scratches, was once more controlled and tidy.

I must beg pardon for the passion of my words. I had not meant to say so much, but the temptation to open my heart to you as I always have is overwhelming. These are things I would not say to Jenny, though I imagine she knows them.

To the point, then; I grow garrulous. Young Jamie and Michael are well enough for the present—at least we have no fear that either of them will be tempted by a soldier’s life.

The same is not true of Ian; you know the lad, and his spirit of adventure, so similar to your own. There is no real work for him here, yet he has not the mind of a scholar or a head for business. How shall he fare, in a world where he must choose between beggary and the profession of war? For there is little else.

We would have him stay with you, if you will have him. It may be that there is a greater opportunity in the New World for him than might be found here. Even if this should not be so, his mother will at least be spared the sight of her son marching away with his regiment.

I could ask no better Guardian or example for him than Yourself. I know I ask a great Favour of you in this Matter. Still, I hope the situation will not be entirely without benefit to you, beyond the presumed Great Pleasure of Ian’s company.

“Not only a poet, but an ironist, too,” Jamie observed, with another glance at the boys on the lawn.

Here there was another break in the text, before the writing resumed, this time with a freshly sharpened quill, the words written carefully, reflecting the thought behind them.

I had left off writing, Brother, wishing my thoughts to be clear and unmazed by weariness before addressing this concern. I have in fact taken up my pen and put it down a dozen times, unsure whether to speak at all—I fear to offend you, in the same breath I ask your favour. And yet I must speak.

I wrote of Simon Fraser, earlier. He is a man of honour, though his father’s son—but he is a bloody man. I have known him since all of us were lads (sometimes that seems but yesterday; and then again, a gulf of years), and there is a hardness in him now, a glimpse of steel at the back of his eyes, that was not there before Culloden.

What troubles me—and the knowledge you bear of my love toward you is all that emboldens me to say this—is that I have seen that steel in your own eyes, Brother.

I know too well the sights that freeze a man’s heart, to harden his eyes in that fashion. I trust that you will forgive my frankness, but I have feared for your soul, many times since Culloden.

I have not spoken of the matter to Jenny, but she has seen it, too. She is a woman, forbye, and will know you in ways I cannot. It will be that fear, I think, that caused her to throw Laoghaire at your head. I did think the match ill-made, but (here a large, deliberate blotch obscured several lines). You are fortunate in Claire.

“Mmphm,” Jamie said at this, giving me an eye. I squeezed his shoulder, and leaned forward to read the rest.

It is late, and I ramble. I spoke of Simon—care for his men is now his sole link with humanity. He has neither wife nor child, he lives without root or hearth, his patrimony hostage to the conqueror he serves. There is a burning fire in such a man, but no heart. I hope never to say the same of you—or of Young Ian.

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