Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 86

   

Jamie wouldn’t be so untactful as to point up an inexperience of which Duncan was more than aware already; he would, though, mean to point up something else. Had Duncan caught it?

“It’s you she means to help, Mac Dubh, and well ye ken it, too.” Duncan’s tones were very dry; he’d taken Jamie’s point, all right.

“I havena said otherwise, Duncan.” Jamie’s voice was even.

“Mmphm.”

I smiled, despite the air of edginess between them. Duncan was every bit as good as Jamie at the Highland art of inarticulate eloquence. This particular noise captured both mild insult at Jamie’s implication that it was improper for Duncan to be accepting the gift of a horse from Jocasta, and a willingness to accept the likewise implied apology for the insult.

“Have ye thought, then?” The bench creaked as Duncan abruptly changed the subject. “Will it be Sinclair, or Geordie Chisholm?”

Without giving Jamie time to reply, he went on, but in a way that made it clear that he had said all this before. I wondered whether he was trying to convince Jamie, or himself—or only assist them both in coming to a decision by repeating the facts of the matter.

“It’s true Sinclair’s a cooper, but Geordie’s a good fellow; a thrifty worker, and he’s the two wee sons, besides. Sinclair isna marrit, so he wouldna need so much in the way of setting up, but—”

“He’d need lathes and tools, and iron and seasoned wood,” Jamie broke in. “He could sleep in his shop, aye, but he’ll need the shop to sleep in. And it will cost verra dear, I think, to buy all that’s needed for a cooperage. Geordie would need a bit of food for his family, but we can provide that from the place here; beyond that, he’ll need no more to begin than a few wee tools—he’ll have an ax, aye?”

“Aye, he’ll have that from his indenture, but it’s the planting season now, Mac Dubh. With the clearing—”

“I ken that weel enough,” Jamie said, a bit testily. “It’s me that put five acres in corn a month ago. And cleared them, first.” While Duncan had been taking his ease at River Run, chatting in taverns and breaking in his new horse. I heard it, and so did Duncan; there was a distinct silence that spoke as loud as words.

A creak from the bench, and then Duncan spoke again, mildly.

“Your auntie Jo’s sent a wee gift for ye.”

“Oh, has she?” The edge in his voice was even more perceptible. I hoped Duncan had sense enough to heed it.

“A bottle of whisky.” There was a smile in Duncan’s voice, answered by a reluctant laugh from Jamie.

“Oh, has she?” he said again, in quite a different tone. “That’s verra kind.”

“She means to be.” There was a substantial creak and shuffle as Duncan got to his feet. “Come wi’ me and fetch it, then, Mac Dubh. A wee drink wouldna do your temper any harm.”

“No, it wouldn’t.” Jamie sounded rueful. “I’ve not slept the night, and I’m cranky as a rutting boar. Ye’ll forgive my manners, Duncan.”

“Och, dinna speak of it.” There was a soft sound, as of a hand clapping a shoulder, and I heard them walk off across the yard together. I moved to the window and watched them, Jamie’s hair gleaming dark bronze in the setting sun, as he tilted his head to listen to something Duncan was telling him, the shorter man gesturing in explanation. The movements of Duncan’s single arm threw off the rhythm of his stride, so he walked with jerky movements, like a large puppet.

What would have become of him, I wondered, had Jamie not found him—and found a place for him? There was no place in Scotland for a one-armed fisherman. There would have been nothing for him but beggary, surely. Starvation, perhaps. Or theft to live, and death at the end of a rope, like Gavin Hayes.

But this was the New World, and if life was chancy here, well, it meant a chance at life, at least. No wonder that Jamie should worry over who should have the best chance. Sinclair the cooper, or Chisholm the farmer?

A cooper would be valuable to have at hand; it would save the men on the ridge the long trip into Cross Creek or Averasboro to fetch the barrels needed for pitch and turpentine, for salted meat and cider. But it would be expensive to set up a cooper’s shop, even with the bare rudiments the trade required. And then there was the unknown Chisholm’s wife and small children to be considered—how were they living now, and what might become of them without help?

Duncan had so far located thirty of the men of Ardsmuir; Gavin Hayes was the first, and we had done for him all that could be done; seen him safe into heaven’s keeping. Two more were known dead, one of fever, one of drowning. Three had completed their terms of indenture, and—armed only with the ax and suit of clothes that were a bondsman’s final pay—had managed to find a foothold for themselves, claiming backcountry land and carving out small homesteads there.

Of the remainder, we had brought twenty so far to settle on good land near the river, under Jamie’s sponsorship. Another was feebleminded but worked for one of the others as a hired man, and so earned his keep. It had taken all of our resources to do it, using all our small quantity of cash, notes against the value of as yet nonexistent crops—and one hair-raising trip into Cross Creek.

Jamie had called upon all his acquaintance there, borrowing small amounts from each, and had then taken this money to the riverside taverns, where in three sleepless nights of play, he had managed to quadruple his stake—narrowly avoiding being knifed in the process, as I learned much later.

I was speechless, looking at the long, jagged rent in the bosom of his coat.

“What—?” I croaked at last.

He shrugged briefly, looking suddenly very tired.

“It doesna matter,” he said. “It’s over.”

He had then shaved, washed, and gone round to all the plantation owners again, returning each man’s money with thanks and a small payment of interest, leaving us with enough to manage seed corn for planting, an extra mule for plowing, a goat and some pigs.

I didn’t ask him anything else; only mended the coat, and saw him safely into bed when he came back from repaying the money lent. I sat by him for a long time, though, watching the lines of exhaustion in his face ease a little as he slept.

Only a little. I had lifted his hand, limp and heavy with sleep, and traced the deep lines of his smooth, callused palm, over and over. The lines of head and heart and life ran long and deep. How many lives lay in those creases now?

My own. His settlers. Fergus and Marsali, who had just arrived from Jamaica, in the custody of Germaine, a chubby blond charmer who had his besotted father in the palm of his fat little hand.

I glanced involuntarily through the window at the thought. Ian and Jamie had helped to build them a small cabin only a mile from our own, and sometimes Marsali would walk over in the evenings to visit, bringing the baby. I could do with seeing him, I thought wistfully. Lonely as I sometimes was for Bree, little Germaine was a substitute for the grandchild I would never hold.

I sighed, and shrugged away the thought.

Jamie and Duncan had come back with the whisky; I could hear them talking by the paddock, their voices relaxed, all tension between them eased—for the moment.

I finished spreading out a thin layer of the wet barley and set it in the corner of the hearth to dry, then went to the writing table, uncapped the inkwell, and opened my casebook. It didn’t take long to record the details of the newest Mueller’s arrival into the world; it had been a long labor but otherwise quite normal. The birth itself had presented no complications; the only unusual feature had been the child’s caul…

I stopped writing and shook my head. Still distracted by thoughts of Jamie, I had let my attention wander. Petronella’s child had not been born with a caul. I had a clear memory of the top of the skull crowning, the pudendum a shiny red ring stretched tight around a small patch of black hair. I had touched it, felt the tiny pulse throbbing there, just under the skin. I remembered vividly the sensation of the wet down against my fingers, like the damp skin of a new-hatched chick.

It was the dream, I thought. I had dreamed in my burrow, mingling the events of the two births together—this one, and Brianna’s. It was Brianna who had been born with a caul.

A “silly hoo,” the Scots called it; a lucky hood. A fortunate portent, a caul offered—they said—protection from drowning in later life. And some children born with a caul were blessed with second sight—though having met one or two of those who saw with the third eye, I took leave to doubt that such a blessing was unmixed.

Whether lucky or not, Brianna had never showed any signs of that strange Celtic “knowing,” and I thought it just as well. I knew enough of my own peculiar form of second sight—the certain knowledge of things to come—not to wish its complications on anyone else.

I looked at the page before me. Only half noticing, I had sketched the rough outline of a girl’s head. A curving thick line of swirling hair, the bare suggestion of a long, straight nose. Beyond that, she was faceless.

I was no artist. I had learned to make clean clinical drawings, accurate pictures of limbs and bodies, but I lacked Brianna’s gift of bringing lines to life. The sketch as it stood was no more than an aide-mémoire; I could look at it and paint her face in memory. To try to do more—to conjure flesh out of the paper—would be to ruin that, and risk losing the image I held of her in my heart.

And would I conjure her in the flesh, if I could do it? No. That I would not; I would a thousand times rather think of her in the safety and comfort of her own time than wish her here amid the harshness and dangers of this one. But it didn’t mean that I didn’t miss her.

For the first time, I felt some small sympathy for Jocasta Cameron and her desire for an heir; someone to remain behind, to take her place; testimony that her life had not been lived in vain.

Twilight was rising beyond the window, from field and wood and river. People spoke of night falling, but it didn’t, really. Darkness rose, filling first the hollows, then shadowing the slopes, creeping imperceptibly up tree trunks and fenceposts as night swallowed the ground and rose up to join the greater dark of the star-spread sky above.

I sat staring out the window, watching the light change on the horses in the paddock; not so much fading as altering, so that everything—arched necks, round rumps, even single blades of grass—stood stark and clean, reality freed for one brief moment from the day’s illusions of sun and shadow.

Unseeing, I traced the line of the drawing with my finger, over and over, as the dark rose up around me and the realities of my heart stood clear in the dusky light. No, I would not wish Brianna here. But that didn’t mean I didn’t miss her.

I finished my notes eventually, and sat quietly for a moment. I should go and begin making supper, I knew, but the weariness of my ordeal still dragged at me, making me unwilling to move. All my muscles ached, and the bruise on my knee throbbed. All I really wanted to do was to crawl back into bed.

Instead, I picked up the skull, which I had set down next to my casebook on the table. I ran my finger gently over the rounded cranium. It was a thoroughly macabre desk ornament, I would admit that, but I felt rather attached to it, nonetheless. I had always found bones beautiful, of man or beast; stark and graceful remnants of life reduced to its foundations.

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