Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 50

   

Phaedre had helped me to find Pollyanne not because she trusted or liked me—but because I was the master’s wife. Pollyanne must be found and hidden. And Jamie, she thought, would of course find Pollyanne and hide her—she was his property; or Jocasta’s, which in Phaedre’s eyes would amount to the same thing.

At last, the stranger lay clean, on the worn linen sheet I had brought for a shroud. Phaedre had combed her hair and braided it; I took up the big stone jar of herbs. I had brought them as much from habit as from reason, but now was glad of them; not so much for aid against the progress of decomposition, but as the sole—and necessary—touch of ceremony.

It was difficult to reconcile this clumsy, reeking lump of clay with the small, cold hand that had grasped mine; with the anguished whisper that had breathed “Tell…” in the smothering dark. And yet there was the memory of her, of the last of her living blood spilling hot in my hand, more vivid in my mind than this sight of her empty flesh, nak*d in the hands of strangers.

There was no minister nearer than Halifax; she would be buried without rites—and yet, what need had she of rites? Funeral rituals are for the comfort of the bereaved. It was unlikely that she had left anyone behind to grieve, I thought; for if she had had anyone so close to her—family, husband, or even lover—I thought she would not now be dead.

I had not known her, would not miss her—but I grieved her; her and her child. And so for myself, rather than for her, I knelt by her body and scattered herbs: fragrant and bitter, leaves of rue and hyssop flowers, rosemary, thyme and lavender. A bouquet from the living to the dead—small token of remembrance.

Phaedre watched in silence, kneeling. Then she reached out and with gentle fingers, laid the shroud across the girl’s dead face. Jamie had come to watch. Without a word, he stooped and picked her up, and bore her to the wagon.

He didn’t speak until I had climbed up and settled myself on the seat beside him. He snapped the reins on the horses’ backs, and clicked his tongue.

“Let us go and find the Sergeant,” he said.

There were, of course, a few things to be attended to first. We returned to River Run to leave Phaedre, and Jamie disappeared to find Duncan and change his stained clothing, while I went to check on my patient and to acquaint Jocasta with the morning’s events.

I needn’t have troubled on either account; Farquard Campbell was sitting in the morning room sipping tea with Jocasta. John Myers, his loins swathed in a Cameron plaid, was lounging at full length upon the green velvet chaise, cheerfully munching scones. Judging from the unaccustomed cleanliness of the bare legs and feet extending from the tartan, someone had taken advantage of his temporary state of unconsciousness the night before to administer a bath.

“My dear.” Jocasta’s head turned at my step, and she smiled, though I saw the twin lines of concern etched between her brows. “Sit you down, child, and take some nourishment; ye will have had no rest last night—and a dreadful morning, it seems.”

I might ordinarily have found it either amusing or insulting to be called “child;” under the circumstances, it was oddly comforting. I sank gratefully into an armchair, and let Ulysses pour me a cup of tea, wondering meanwhile just how much Farquard had told Jocasta—and how much he knew.

“How are you this morning?” I asked my patient. He appeared to be in amazingly good condition, considering his alcoholic intake of the night before. His color was good, and so was his appetite, judging from the quantity of crumbs on the plate by his side.

He nodded cordially at me, jaws champing, and swallowed with some effort.

“Astounding fine, ma’am, I thank ye kindly. A mite sore round the privates”—he tenderly patted the area in question—“but a sweeter job of stitchin’ I’ve not been privileged to see. Mr. Ulysses was kind enough to fetch me a lookin’ glass,” he explained. He shook his head in some awe. “Never seen my own behind before; as much hair as I got back there, ye’d think my daddy’d been a bear!”

He laughed heartily at this, and Farquard Campbell buried a smile in his teacup. Ulysses turned away with the tray, but I saw the corner of his mouth twitch.

Jocasta laughed out loud, blind eyes crinkling in amusement.

“They do say it’s a wise bairn that kens its father, John Quincy. But I kent your mother weel, and I’ll say I think it unlikely.”

Myers shook his head, but his eyes twinkled over the thick growth of beard.

“Well, my mama did admire a hairy man. Said it was a rare comfort on a cold winter’s night.” He peered down the open neck of his shirt, viewing the underbrush on display with some satisfaction. “Might be so, at that. The Indian lassies seem to like it—though it’s maybe only the novelty, come to think on it. Their own men scarcely got fuzz on their balls, let alone their backsides.”

Mr. Campbell inhaled a fragment of scone, and coughed heavily into his napkin. I smiled to myself and took a deep swallow of tea. It was a strong and fragrant Indian blend, and despite the oppressive heat of the morning, more than welcome. A light dew of sweat broke out on my face as I drank, but the warmth settled comfortingly into my uneasy stomach, the perfume of the tea driving the stench of blood and excreta from my nose, even as the cheerful conversation banished the morbid scenes of the morning from my mind.

I eyed the hearth rug wistfully. I felt as though I could lie down there peacefully and sleep for a week. No rest for the weary, though.

Jamie came in, freshly shaved and combed, dressed in sober coat and clean linen. He nodded to Farquard Campbell with no apparent surprise; he must have heard his voice from the hallway.

“Auntie.” He bent and kissed Jocasta’s cheek in greeting, then smiled at Myers.

“How is it, a charaid? Or shall I say, how are they?”

“Right as rain,” Myers assured him. He cupped a hand consideringly between his legs. “Think I might wait a day or two before I climb back on a horse, though.”

“I would,” Jamie assured him. He turned back to Jocasta. “Have ye maybe seen Duncan this morning, Auntie?”

“Oh, aye. He’s gone a small errand for me, he and the laddie.” She smiled and reached for him; I saw her fingers wrap tight around his wrist. “Such a dear man, Mr. Innes. So helpful. And such a quick, canny man; a real pleasure to talk to. Do ye not find him so, Nephew?”

Jamie glanced at her curiously, then his gaze flicked to Farquard Campbell. The older man avoided his eye, sipping at his tea as he affected to study the large painting that hung above the mantel.

“Indeed,” Jamie said dryly. “A useful man, is Duncan. And Young Ian’s gone with him?”

“To fetch a bittie package for me,” his aunt said placidly. “Did ye need Duncan directly?”

“No,” Jamie said slowly, staring down at her. “It can wait.”

Her fingers slipped free of his sleeve, and she reached for her teacup. The delicate handle was angled precisely toward her, ready for her hand.

“That’s good,” she said. “Ye’ll have a bite of breakfast, then? And Farquard—another scone?”

“Ah, no, Cha ghabh mi ’n còrr, tapa leibh. I’ve business in the town, and best I be about it.” Campbell set down his cup and got to his feet, bowing to me and to Jocasta in turn. “Your servant, ladies. Mr. Fraser,” he added, with a lift of one brow, and bowing, he followed Ulysses out.

Jamie sat down, his own brows raised, and reached for a piece of toast.

“Your errand, Aunt—Duncan’s gone to find the slave woman?”

“He has.” Jocasta turned her blind eyes toward him, frowning. “You’ll not mind, Jamie? I ken Duncan’s your man, but it seemed an urgent matter; and I couldna be sure when you’d come.”

“What did Campbell tell ye?” I could tell what Jamie was thinking; it seemed out of character for the upright and rigid Mr. Campbell, justice of the district, who would not stir a hand to prevent a gruesome lynching, to conspire for the protection of a female slave, and an abortionist to boot. And yet—perhaps he meant it as compensation for what he had not been able to prevent before.

The handsome shoulders moved in the slightest of shrugs, and a muscle dipped near the corner of her mouth.

“I’ve kent Farquard Campbell these twenty years, a mhic mo pheathar. I hear what he doesna say better than what he does.”

Myers had been following this exchange with interest.

“Couldn’t say as my own ears are that good,” he observed mildly. “All I heard him say was how some poor woman kilt herself by accident, up to the mill, tryin’ to rid herself of a burden. He said he didn’t know her, himself.” He smiled blandly at me.

“And that alone tells me the lass is a stranger,” Jocasta observed. “Farquard knows the folk on the river and in the town as well as I ken my own folk. She is no one’s daughter, no one’s servant.”

She set down her cup and leaned back in her chair with a sigh.

“It will be all right,” she said. “Eat up your food, lad; ye must be starving.”

Jamie stared at her for a moment, the piece of toast uneaten in his hand. He leaned forward and dropped it back on the plate.

“I canna say I’ve much appetite just now, Auntie. Dead lassies curdle my wame a bit.” He stood up, brushing down the skirts of his coat.

“She’s maybe no one’s daughter or servant—but she’s lyin’ in the yard just now, drawing flies. I’d have a name for her before I bury her.” He turned on his heel and stalked out.

I drained the last of my tea and set the cup back with a faint chime of bone china.

“Sorry,” I said apologetically. “I don’t believe I’m hungry, either.”

Jocasta neither moved nor changed expression. As I left the room I saw Myers lean over from his chaise and neatly snag the last of the scones.

It was nearly noon before we reached the Crown’s warehouse at the end of Hay Street. It stood on the north side of the river, with its own pier for loading, a little way above the town itself. There seemed little necessity for a guard at the moment; nothing moved in the vicinity of the building save a few sulphur butterflies who, unaffected by the smothering heat, were diligently laboring among the flowering bushes that grew thick along the shore.

“What do they keep here?” I asked Jamie, looking curiously up at the massive structure. The huge double doors were shut and bolted, the single red-coated sentry motionless as a tin soldier in front of them. A smaller building beside the warehouse sported an English flag, drooping limply in the heat; presumably this was the lair of the sergeant we were seeking.

Jamie shrugged and brushed a questing fly away from his eyebrow. We had been attracting more and more of them as the heat of the day increased, despite the movement of the wagon. I sniffed discreetly, but could smell only a faint hint of thyme.

“Whatever the Crown thinks valuable. Furs from the backcountry, naval stores—pitch and turpentine. But the guard is because of the liquor.”

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