Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 49

   

I opened my mouth to reply, but caught a warning look from Jamie. Not noticing, Mr. Campbell went on.

“The question remains whether the poor woman will have done it herself, or met her death by the agency of another. What think ye, Mistress Fraser?”

Jamie narrowed his eyes at me over Campbell’s shoulder, but the warning was unnecessary; we had discussed the matter last night, and come to our own conclusions—also to the conclusion that our opinions need not be shared with the forces of law and order in Cross Creek; not just yet. I pinched my nose slightly under pretext of the smell, in order to disguise any telltale alteration of my expression. I was a very bad liar.

“I’m sure she did it by herself,” I said firmly. “It takes very little time to bleed to death in this manner, and as Jamie told you, she was still alive when we found her. We were outside the mill, talking, for some time before we came in; no one would have been able to leave without our seeing them.”

On the other hand, a person might quite easily have hidden in the other room, and crept out quietly in the dark while we were occupied in comforting the dying woman. If this possibility did not occur to Mr. Campbell, I saw no reason to draw it to his attention.

Jamie had rearranged his features into an expression of gravity suitable to the occasion by the time Mr. Campbell turned back to him. The older man shook his head in regret.

“Ah, poor unfortunate lass! I suppose we can but be relieved that no one else has shared her sin.”

“What about the man who fathered the child she was trying to get rid of?” I said, with a certain amount of acidity. Mr. Campbell looked startled, but pulled himself quickly back together.

“Um…quite so,” he said, and coughed. “Though we do not know whether she were married—”

“So ye do not know the woman yourself, sir?” Jamie butted in before I could make any further injudicious remarks.

Campbell shook his head.

“She is not the servant of Mr. Buchanan or the MacNeills, I am sure. Nor Judge Alderdyce. Those are the only plantations near enough from which she might have walked. Though it does occur to me to wonder why she should have come to this particular place to perform such a desperate act…”

It had occurred to Jamie and me, too. To prevent Mr. Campbell’s taking the next step in this line of inquiry, Jamie intervened again.

“She said verra little, but she did mention a ‘Sergeant.’ ‘Tell the Sergeant’ were her words. Do ye perhaps have a thought whom she might mean by that, sir?”

“I think there is an army sergeant in charge of the guard on the royal warehouse. Yes, I am sure of it.” Mr. Campbell brightened slightly. “Ah! Nay doubt the woman was attached in some way to the military establishment. Depend upon it, that is the explanation. Though I still wonder why she—”

“Mr. Campbell, do pardon me—I’m afraid I’m feeling a bit faint,” I interrupted, laying a hand on his sleeve. This was no lie; I hadn’t slept or eaten. I felt light-headed from the heat and the smell, and I knew I must look pale.

“Will ye see my wife outside, sir?” Jamie said. He gestured toward the bed and its pathetic burden. “I’ll bring the poor lass along as I may.”

“Pray do not trouble yourself, Mr. Fraser,” Campbell protested, already turning to usher me out. “My servant can fetch out the body.”

“It is my aunt’s mill, sir, and thus my concern.” Jamie spoke politely, but firmly. “I shall attend to it.”

Phaedre was waiting outside, by the wagon.

“I told you that place got haints,” she said, surveying me with an air of grim satisfaction. “You white as ary sheet, ma’am.” She handed me a flask of spiced wine, wrinkling her nose delicately in my direction.

“You smellin’ worse than what you was last night, and you look like you come from a pig-killin’ then. Sit you down in the shade here and drink that up; fix you up peart.” She glanced over my shoulder. I looked back as well, and saw that Campbell had reached the shade of the sycamores by the creek bank, and was deep in conversation with his servant.

“Found her,” Phaedre said at once, dropping her voice. Her eyes cut sideways, toward the small cluster of slave huts, barely visible from this side of the mill.

“You’re sure? You didn’t have much time.” I took a mouthful of wine and held it, glad of the sharp bouquet that rose up the back of my throat, cleansing my palate of the taste of death.

Phaedre nodded, her glance moving to the men under the trees.

“Didn’t need much. Walked down by them houses, saw one door hangin’ open, little bits of trash scattered round like somebody done left in a hurry. I find a picanin’ and ask him who livin’ there, he tell me Pollyanne live there, but she gone now, he don’t know where. Ask him when she leave, he say she there for supper last night, this morning she gone, nobody see her.” Her eyes met mine, dark with questions. “Now you know, what you mean to do?”

A bloody good question, and one for which I had no answer at all. I swallowed the wine, and along with it, a rising sense of panic.

“All the slaves here must know she’s gone; how long before anyone else finds out? Whose business will it be to know such things, now that Byrnes is dead?”

Phaedre raised one shoulder in a graceful shrug.

“Anybody come askin’ find out right quick. But whose business it be to ask—” She nodded toward the mill. We had left the small door to the living quarters open; Jamie was coming out, a blanket-wrapped burden cradled in his arms.

“Reckon it’s his,” she said.

I am already part of it. He had known, even before the interrupted dinner party. With no formal announcement, with neither invitation nor acceptance of the role, he fit the place, the part, like a piece slipping into a jigsaw puzzle. Already he was the master of River Run—if he wanted to be.

Campbell’s servant had come to help with the body; Jamie sank to one knee by the edge of the mill flume, surrendering his burden gently to the earth. I gave Phaedre back the flask, with a nod of thanks.

“Will you fetch the things from the wagon?”

Without a word, Phaedre went to get the things I had brought—a blanket, a bucket, clean rags, and a jar of herbs—while I went to join Jamie.

He was kneeling by the creek, washing his hands, a little way upstream from where the body lay. It was foolish to wash in preparation for what I was about to do, but habit was strong; I knelt beside him and dipped my hands as well, letting the cold fresh rush of water carry away the touch of clammy flesh.

“I was right,” I said to him, low-voiced. “It was a woman called Pollyanne; she’s run away in the night.”

He grimaced, rubbing his palms briskly together, and glanced over his shoulder. Campbell was standing over the corpse now, a slight frown of distaste still on his face.

Jamie scowled in concentration, gaze returning to his hands. “Well, that’ll put a cocked hat on it, aye?” He bent and splashed his face, then shook his head violently, flinging drops like a wet dog. Then he gave me a nod, and stood up, wiping his face with the end of his stained plaid.

“See to the lassie, aye, Sassenach?” He stalked purposefully toward Mr. Campbell, plaid swinging.

There was no use saving any of her clothes; I cut them off. Undressed, she looked to be in her twenties. Undernourished; ribs countable, arms and legs slender and pale as stripped branches. For all that, she was still surprisingly heavy, and the remnants of rigor mortis made her hard to handle. Phaedre and I were both sweating heavily before we finished, and strands of hair were escaping from the knot at my neck and pasting themselves to my flushed cheeks.

At least the heavy labor kept conversation to a minimum, leaving me in peace with my thoughts. Not that my thoughts were particularly peaceful.

A woman seeking to “slip a bairn,” as Jamie put it, would do it in her own room, her own bed, if she were doing it alone. The only reason for the stranger to have come to a remote place such as this was to meet the person who would do the office for her—a person who could not come to her.

We must look for a slave in the mill quarters, I had told him, one maybe with the reputation of a midwife, someone women would talk about among themselves, would recommend in whispers.

The fact that I had apparently been proved right gave me no satisfaction. The abortionist had fled, fearing that the woman would have told us who had done the deed. If she had stayed put and said nothing, Farquard Campbell might have taken my word for it that the woman must have done it herself—he could hardly prove otherwise. If anyone else found that the slave Pollyanne had run, though—and of course they would find out!—and she were caught and questioned, the whole matter would no doubt come out at once. And then what?

I shuddered, despite the heat. Did the law of bloodshed apply in this case? It certainly ought, I thought, grimly sluicing yet another bucket of water over the splayed white limbs, if quantity counted for anything.

Damn the woman, I thought, using irritation to cover a useless pity. I could do nothing for her now save try to tidy up the mess she had left—in every sense of the word. And perhaps try to save the other player in this tragedy; the hapless woman who had done murder unmeaning, in the guise of help, and who stood now to pay for that mistake with her own life.

Jamie had gotten the wine flask, I saw; he was passing it back and forth with Farquard Campbell, the two talking intently, occasionally turning to gesture at the mill or back toward the river or the town.

“You got anything I can comb her out with, ma’am?”

Phaedre’s question pulled my attention back to the job at hand. She was squatting by the body, fingering the tangled hair critically.

“Wouldn’t like to put her in the ground lookin’ like this, poor child,” she said, shaking her head.

I thought Phaedre was likely not much older than the dead woman—and in any case, it scarcely mattered that the corpse should go to its grave well-groomed. Still, I groped in my pocket and came up with a small ivory comb, with which Phaedre set to work, humming under her breath.

Mr. Campbell was taking his leave. I heard the creak of his team’s harness, and their small stamping of anticipation as the groom settled himself. Mr. Campbell saw me and bowed deeply, hat held low. I sketched him a curtsy in return, and watched with relief as he drove away.

Phaedre, too, had stopped her work and was gazing after the departing carriage.

She said something under her breath, and spat in the dust. It was done without apparent malice; a charm against evil that I’d seen before. She looked up at me.

“Mister Jamie best find that Pollyanne afore sunset. Be wild animals in the piney wood, and Mister Ulysses say that woman worth two hundred pound when Miss Jocasta buy her. She don’t know the woods, that Pollyanne; she be come straight from Africa, no more’n a year agone.”

Without further comment, she bent her head over her task, fingers moving dark and quick as a spider among the fine silk of our corpse’s hair.

I bent to my work as well, realizing with something of a shock that the web of circumstance that enmeshed Jamie had touched me, too. I did not stand outside, as I had thought, and could not if I wanted to.

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