Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 6

   

The singer’s voice cracked painfully on “voice, fiddle, and flute,” but he sang stoutly on, despite the laughter from his audience. I smiled wryly to myself as he hit the final couplet,

“ ‘And, besides, I’ll instruct you like me to entwine,

The Myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s vine!’ ”

I lifted my cup in salute to the wheeled coffin, softly echoing the melody of the singer’s last lines.

“Oh, say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave

O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”

I drained my cup and sat still, waiting for the men to come out.

2

IN WHICH WE MEET A GHOST

Ten, eleven, twelve…and two, and six…one pound, eight shillings, sixpence, two farthings!” Fergus dropped the last coin ceremoniously into the cloth pocket, pulled tight the drawstrings, and handed it to Jamie. “And three buttons,” he added, “but I have kept those,” and patted the side of his coat.

“Ye’ve settled with the landlord for our meal?” Jamie asked me, weighing the little bag.

“Yes,” I assured him. “I have four shillings and sixpence left, plus what Fergus collected.”

Fergus smiled modestly, square white teeth gleaming in the faint light from the tavern’s window.

“We have the necessary money for the burial, then,” he said. “Will we take Monsieur Hayes to the priest now, or wait till morning?”

Jamie frowned at the wagon, standing silent at the edge of the inn yard.

“I shouldna think the priest will be awake at this hour,” he said, with a glance at the rising moon. “Still—”

“I’d just as soon not take him with us,” I said. “Not to be rude,” I added apologetically to the wagon. “But if we’re going to sleep out in the woods, the…er…scent…” It wasn’t overpowering, but once away from the smoky reek of the tavern, a distinct odor was noticeable in the vicinity of the wagon. It hadn’t been a gentle death, and it had been a hot day.

“Auntie Claire is right,” Ian said, brushing his knuckles inconspicuously under his nose. “We dinna want to be attracting wild animals.”

“We canna be leaving Gavin here, surely!” Duncan protested, scandalized at the thought. “What, leave him lying on the step o’ the inn in his shroud, like a foundling wrapped in swaddling clothes?” He swayed alarmingly, his alcoholic intake affecting his always precarious balance.

I saw Jamie’s wide mouth twitch with amusement, the moon shining white on the knife-edged bridge of his nose.

“No,” he said. “We willna be leaving him here.” He tossed the little bag from hand to hand with a faint chinking sound, then, making his decision, thrust it into his coat.

“We’ll bury him ourselves,” he said. “Fergus, will ye be stepping into the stable yonder and see can ye buy a spade verra cheap?”

The short journey to the church through the quiet streets of Charleston was somewhat less dignified than the usual funeral cortege, marked as it was by Duncan’s insistence on repeating the more interesting portions of his lament as a processional.

Jamie drove slowly, shouting occasional encouragement to the horses; Duncan staggered beside the team, chanting hoarsely and clutching one animal by its headstall, while Ian held the other to prevent bolting. Fergus and I brought up the rear in staid respectability, Fergus holding his newly purchased shovel at port-arms, and muttering dire predictions as to the likelihood of us all spending the night in gaol for disturbing the peace of Charleston.

As it was, the church stood by itself in a quiet street, some distance from the nearest house. This was all to the good, in terms of avoiding notice, but it did mean that the churchyard was dauntingly dark, with no glow of torch or candle to pierce the blackness.

Great magnolia trees overhung the gate, leathery leaves drooping in the heat, and a border of pines, meant to provide shade and respite in the day, served at night to block all traces of moon and starlight, leaving the churchyard itself black as a…well, as a crypt.

Walking through the air felt like pushing aside curtains of black velvet, perfumed with an incense of turpentine from the sun-heated pines; endless layers of soft, pungent smothering. Nothing could have been farther from the cold purity of the Highlands than this stifling southern atmosphere. Still, faint patches of mist hung under the dark brick walls, and I could have wished not to recall Jamie’s story of the tannasq quite so vividly.

“We’ll find a place. Do you stay and hold the horses, Duncan.” Jamie slid down from the wagon’s seat and took me by the arm.

“We’ll find a nice wee spot by the wall, perhaps,” he said, guiding me toward the gate. “Ian and I will dig while you hold the light, and Fergus can stand guard.”

“What about Duncan?” I asked, with a backward glance. “Will he be all right?” The Scotsman was invisible, his tall, lanky form having faded into the larger blot comprising horses and wagon, but he was still clearly audible.

“He’ll be chief mourner,” Jamie said, with a hint of a smile in his voice. “Mind your head, Sassenach.” I ducked automatically beneath a low magnolia branch; I didn’t know whether Jamie could actually see in total darkness, or merely felt things by instinct, but I had never seen him stumble, no matter how dark the surroundings.

“Don’t you think someone’s going to notice a fresh grave?” It was not completely black in the churchyard, after all; once out from under the magnolias, I could make out the dim forms of gravestones, looking insubstantial but sinister in the dark, a faint mist rising from the thick grass about their feet.

The soles of my own feet tingled as we picked a ginger way through the stones. I seemed to feel silent waves of reproach at this unseemly intrusion wafting up from below. I barked my shin on a tombstone and bit my lip, stifling an urge to apologize to its owner.

“I expect they might.” Jamie let go of my arm to rummage in his coat. “But if the priest wanted money to bury Gavin, I shouldna think he’d trouble to dig him up again for nothing, aye?”

Young Ian materialized out of the darkness at my elbow, startling me.

“There’s open space by the north wall, Uncle Jamie,” he said, speaking softly in spite of the obvious fact that there was no one to hear. He paused, and drew slightly closer to me.

“It’s verra dark in here, no?” The boy sounded uneasy. He had had nearly as much to drink as Jamie or Fergus, but while the alcohol had imbued the older men with grim humor, it had clearly had a more depressing effect on Ian’s spirits.

“It is, aye. I’ve the bit of a candle I took from the tavern, though; wait a bit.” Faint rustlings announced Jamie’s search for flint and tinderbox.

The encompassing dark made me feel disembodied, like a ghost myself. I looked upward and saw stars, so faintly visible through the thick air that they shed no light upon the ground, but only gave a feeling of immense distance and infinite remoteness.

“It’s like the vigil of Easter.” Jamie’s voice came softly, accompanied by the small scratching sounds of a striking flint. “I saw the service once, at Notre Dame in Paris. Watch yourself, Ian, there’s a stone just there!” A thud and a stifled grunt announced that Ian had belatedly discovered the stone for himself.

“The church was all dark,” Jamie continued, “but the folk coming for the service would buy small tapers from the crones at the doors. It was something like this”—I felt, rather than saw, his motion at the sky above—“a great space above, all ringing wi’ the silence, and folk packed in on every side.” Hot as it was, I gave an involuntary shiver at these words, which conjured up a vision of the dead around us, crowding silently side by side, in anticipation of an imminent resurrection.

“And then, just when I thought I couldna bear the silence and the crowd, there came the priest’s voice from the door. ‘Lumen Christi!’ he called out, and the acolytes lit the great candle that he carried. Then from it they took the flame to their own tapers, and scampered up and down the aisles, passing the fire to the candles o’ the faithful.”

I could see his hands, lit faintly by the tiny sparks from his flint.

“Then the church came alive wi’ a thousand small flames, but it was that first candle that broke the dark.”

The scratching sounds ceased, and he took away the cupped hand that had shielded the newborn flame. The flame strengthened and lit his face from below, gilding the planes of high cheekbones and forehead, and shadowing the deep-set orbits of his eyes.

He lifted the candle, surveying the looming grave markers, eerie as a circle of standing stones.

“Lumen Christi,” he said softly, inclining his head toward a granite pillar surmounted with a cross, “et reguiescat in pace, amice.” The half-mocking note had left his voice; he spoke with complete seriousness, and I felt at once oddly comforted, as though some watchful presence had withdrawn.

He smiled at me then, and handed me the candle.

“See can ye find a bit of wood for a torch, Sassenach,” he said. “Ian and I will take it in turns to dig.”

I was no longer nervous, but still felt like a grave robber, standing under a pine tree with my torch, watching Young Ian and Jamie take their turns in the deepening pit, their nak*d backs gleaming with sweat in the torchlight.

“Medical students used to pay men to steal fresh bodies from churchyards,” I said, handing my soiled kerchief to Jamie as he hauled himself out of the hole, grunting with effort. “That was the only way they could practice dissection.”

“Did they?” Jamie said. He wiped the sweat from his face and gave me a quick, wry glance. “Or do they?”

Luckily, it was too dark for Ian to notice my flush, despite the torchlight. It wasn’t the first slip I had made, nor was it likely to be the last, but most such inadvertencies resulted in nothing more than a quizzical glance, were they noticed at all. The truth simply was not a possibility that would occur to anyone.

“I imagine they do it now,” I admitted. I shivered slightly at the thought of confronting a freshly exhumed and unpreserved body, still smeared with the dirt of its desecrated grave. Cadavers embalmed and laid on a stainless steel surface were not particularly pleasant either, but the formality of their presentation served to keep the corruptive realities of death at some small distance.

I exhaled strongly through my nose, trying to rid myself of odors, imagined and remembered. When I breathed in, my nostrils were filled with the smell of damp earth and hot pitch from my pine torch, and the fainter, cooler echo of live scent from the pines overhead.

“They take paupers and criminals from the prisons, too.” Young Ian, who had evidently heard the exchange, if not understood it, took the opportunity to stop for a moment, wiping his brow as he leaned on the shovel.

“Da told me about one time he was arrested, when they took him to Edinburgh, and kept him in the Tolbooth. He was in a cell wi’ three other men, and one of them a fellow with the consumption, who coughed something dreadful, keeping the rest awake all night and all day. Then one night the coughing stopped, and they kent he was dead. But Da said they were so tired, they couldna do more than say a Pater Noster for his soul, and fall asleep.”

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