Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 5

   

“At last he could bear it no more, and seizing hold of the crucifix he wore round his neck, he swung about wi’ a great cry to face whatever followed.”

“What did he see?” Ian’s pupils were dilated, dark with drink and wonder. Jamie glanced at the boy, and then at Duncan, nodding at him to take up the story.

“He said it was a figure like a man, but with no body,” Duncan said quietly. “All white, like as it might have been made of the mist. But wi’ great holes where its eyes should be, and empty black, fit to draw the soul from his body with dread.”

“But Gavin held up his cross before his face, and he prayed aloud to the Blessed Virgin.” Jamie took up the story, leaning forward intently, the dim firelight outlining his profile in gold. “And the thing came no nearer, but stayed there, watching him.

“And so he began to walk backward, not daring to face round again. He walked backward, stumbling and slipping, fearing every moment as he might tumble into a burn or down a cliff and break his neck, but fearing worse to turn his back on the cold thing.

“He couldna tell how long he’d walked, only that his legs were trembling wi’ weariness, when at last he caught a glimpse of light through the mist, and there was his own cottage, wi’ the candle in the window. He cried out in joy, and turned to his door, but the cold thing was quick, and slippit past him, to stand betwixt him and the door.

“His wife had been watching out for him, and when she heard him cry out, she came at once to the door. Gavin shouted to her not to come out, but for God’s sake to fetch a charm to drive away the tannasq. Quick as thought, she snatched the pot from beneath her bed, and a twig of myrtle bound wi’ red thread and black, that she’d made to bless the cows. She dashed the water against the doorposts, and the cold thing leapt upward, astride the lintel. Gavin rushed in beneath and barred the door, and stayed inside in his wife’s arms until the dawn. They let the candle burn all the night, and Gavin Hayes never again left his house past sunset—until he went to fight for Prince Tearlach.”

Even Duncan, who knew the tale, sighed as Jamie finished speaking. Ian crossed himself, then looked about self-consciously, but no one seemed to have noticed.

“So, now Gavin has gone into the dark,” Jamie said softly. “But we willna let him lie in unconsecrated ground.”

“Did they find the cow?” Fergus asked, with his usual practicality. Jamie quirked one eyebrow at Duncan, who answered.

“Oh, aye, they did. The next morning they found the poor beast, wi’ her hooves all clogged wi’ mud and stones, staring mad and lathered about the muzzle, and her sides heavin’ fit to burst.” He glanced from me to Ian and back to Fergus. “Gavin did say,” he said precisely, “that she looked as though she’d been ridden to Hell and back.”

“Jesus.” Ian took a deep gulp of his ale, and I did the same. In the corner, the drinking society was making attempts on a round of “Captain Thunder,” breaking down each time in helpless laughter.

Ian put down his cup on the table.

“What happened to them?” he asked, his face troubled. “To Gavin’s wife, and his son?”

Jamie’s eyes met mine, and his hand touched my thigh. I knew, without being told, what had happened to the Hayes family. Without Jamie’s own courage and intransigence, the same thing would likely have happened to me and to our daughter Brianna.

“Gavin never knew,” Jamie said quietly. “He never heard aught of his wife—she will have been starved, maybe, or driven out to die of the cold. His son took the field beside him at Culloden. Whenever a man who had fought there came into our cell, Gavin would ask—‘Have ye maybe seen a bold lad named Archie Hayes, about so tall?’ He measured automatically, five feet from the floor, capturing Hayes’ gesture. “ ‘A lad about fourteen,’ he’d say, ‘wi’ a green plaidie and a small gilt brooch.’ But no one ever came who had seen him for sure—either seen him fall or seen him run away safe.”

Jamie took a sip of the ale, his eyes fixed on a pair of British officers who had come in and settled in the corner. It had grown dark outside, and they were plainly off duty. Their leather stocks were unfastened on account of the heat, and they wore only sidearms, glinting under their coats; nearly black in the dim light save where the firelight touched them with red.

“Sometimes he hoped the lad might have been captured and transported,” he said. “Like his brother.”

“Surely that would be somewhere in the records?” I said. “Did they—do they—keep lists?”

“They did,” Jamie said, still watching the soldiers. A small, bitter smile touched the corner of his mouth. “It was such a list that saved me, after Culloden, when they asked my name before shooting me, so as to add it to their roll. But a man like Gavin would have no way to see the English deadlists. And if he could have found out, I think he would not.” He glanced at me. “Would you choose to know for sure, and it was your child?”

I shook my head, and he gave me a faint smile and squeezed my hand. Our child was safe, after all. He picked up his cup and drained it, then beckoned to the serving maid.

The girl brought the food, skirting the table widely in order to avoid Rollo. The beast lay motionless under the table, his head protruding into the room and his great hairy tail lying heavily across my feet, but his yellow eyes were wide open, watching everything. They followed the girl intently, and she backed nervously away, keeping an eye on him until she was safely out of biting distance.

Seeing this, Jamie cast a dubious look at the so-called dog.

“Is he hungry? Must I ask for a fish for him?”

“Oh, no, Uncle,” Ian reassured him. “Rollo catches his own fish.”

Jamie’s eyebrows shot up, but he only nodded, and with a wary glance at Rollo, took a platter of roasted oysters from the tray.

“Ah, the pity of it.” Duncan Innes was quite drunk by now. He sat slumped against the wall, his armless shoulder riding higher than the other, giving him a strange, hunchbacked appearance. “That a dear man like Gavin should come to such an end!” He shook his head lugubriously, swinging it back and forth over his alecup like the clapper of a funeral bell.

“No family left to mourn him, cast alone into a savage land—hanged as a felon, and to be buried in an unconsecrated grave. Not even a proper lament to be sung for him!” He picked up the cup, and with some difficulty, found his mouth with it. He drank deep and set it down with a muffled clang.

“Well, he shall have a caithris!” He glared belligerently from Jamie to Fergus to Ian. “Why not?”

Jamie wasn’t drunk, but he wasn’t completely sober either. He grinned at Duncan and lifted his own cup in salute.

“Why not, indeed?” he said. “Only it will have to be you singin’ it, Duncan. None of the rest knew Gavin, and I’m no singer. I’ll shout along wi’ ye, though.”

Duncan nodded magisterially, bloodshot eyes surveying us. Without warning, he flung back his head and emitted a terrible howl. I jumped in my seat, spilling half a cup of ale into my lap. Ian and Fergus, who had evidently heard Gaelic laments before, didn’t turn a hair.

All over the room, benches were shoved back, as men leapt to their feet in alarm, reaching for their pistols. The barmaid leaned out of the serving hatch, eyes big. Rollo came awake with an explosive “Woof!” and glared round wildly, teeth bared.

“Tha sinn cruinn a chaoidh ar caraid, Gabhainn Hayes,” Duncan thundered, in a ragged baritone. I had just about enough Gaelic to translate this as “We are met to weep and cry out to heaven for the loss of our friend, Gavin Hayes!”

“Èisd ris!” Jamie chimed in.

“Rugadh e do Sheumas Immanuel Hayes agus Louisa N’ic a Liallainn an am baile Chill-Mhartainn, ann an sgire Dhun Domhnuill, anns a bhliadhnaseachd ceud deug agus a haon!” He was born of Seaumais Emmanuel Hayes and of Louisa Maclellan, in the village of Kilmartin in the parish of Dodanil, in the year of our Lord seventeen hundred and one!

“Èisd ris!” This time Fergus and Ian joined in on the chorus, which I translated roughly as “Hear him!”

Rollo appeared not to care for either verse or refrain; his ears lay flat against his skull, and his yellow eyes narrowed to slits. Ian scratched his head in reassurance, and he lay down again, muttering wolf curses under his breath.

The audience, having caught on to it that no actual violence threatened, and no doubt bored with the inferior vocal efforts of the drinking society in the corner, settled down to enjoy the show. By the time Duncan had worked his way into an accounting of the names of the sheep Gavin Hayes had owned before leaving his croft to follow his laird to Culloden, many of those at the surrounding tables were joining enthusiastically in the chorus, shouting “Èisd ris!” and banging their mugs on the tables, in perfect ignorance of what was being said, and a good thing too.

Duncan, drunker than ever, fixed the soldiers at the next table with a baleful glare, sweat pouring down his face.

“A Shasunnaich na galladh’s olc a thig e dhuibh fanaid air bàs gasgaich. Gun toireadh an diabhul fhein leis anns a bhàs sibh, direach do Fhirinn!!” Wicked Sassenach dogs, eaters of dead flesh! Ill does it become you to laugh and rejoice at the death of a gallant man! May the devil himself seize upon you in the hour of your death and take you straight to hell!

Ian blanched slightly at this, and Jamie cast Duncan a narrow look, but they stoutly shouted “Èisd ris!” along with the rest of the crowd.

Fergus, seized by inspiration, got up and passed his hat among the crowd, who, carried away by ale and excitement, happily flung coppers into it for the privilege of joining in their own denunciation.

I had as good a head for drink as most men, but a much smaller bladder. Head spinning from the noise and fumes as much as from alcohol, I got up and edged my way out from behind the table, through the mob, and into the fresh air of the early evening.

It was still hot and sultry, though the sun was long since down. Still, there was a lot more air out here, and a lot fewer people sharing it.

Having relieved the internal pressure, I sat down on the tavern’s chopping block with my pewter mug, breathing deeply. The night was clear, with a bright half-moon peeping silver over the harbor’s edge. Our wagon stood nearby, no more than its outline visible in the light from the tavern windows. Presumably, Gavin Hayes’ decently shrouded body lay within. I trusted he had enjoyed his caithris.

Inside, Duncan’s chanting had come to an end. A clear tenor voice, wobbly with drink, but sweet nonetheless, was singing a familiar tune, audible over the babble of talk.

“To Anacreon in heav’n, where he sat in full glee,

A few sons of harmony sent a petition,

That he their inspirer and patron would be!

When this answer arrived from the jolly old Grecian:

‘Voice, fiddle, and flute,

No longer be mute!

I’ll lend you my name and inspire you to boot.’ ”

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