Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 91

   

His skin had a pleasant animal heat, and my fingers, still chilly from the stream, warmed comfortably as I ordered the soft strands of silky chestnut hair. It was very thick, and slightly wavy. On the crown of his head was a cowlick, a delicate whorl that gave me mild vertigo to see; Jamie had the same cowlick, in the same place.

“I’ve lost my ribbon,” he said, looking vaguely round, as though one might materialize from bread hutch or inkwell.

“That’s all right; I’ll lend you one.” I finished plaiting his hair and tied it with a scrap of yellow ribbon, feeling as I did so an odd sense of protectiveness.

I had learned of his existence only a few years earlier, and if I had thought of him in the meantime at all, had felt no more than a minor sense of curiosity tinged with resentment. But now something—be it his resemblance to my own child, his resemblance to Jamie, or simply the fact that I had taken care of him in some small way—had given me a strange feeling of almost proprietary concern for him.

I could hear the rumble of voices outside; the sound of a sudden laugh, and my annoyance at John Grey came back with a rush. How dare he risk both Jamie and William—and for what? Why was the bloody man here, in a wilderness as blatantly unsuited to someone of his sort as a—

The door opened, and Jamie poked his head in.

“Will ye be all right?” he asked. His eyes rested on the boy, an expression of polite concern on his face, but I saw his hand, curled tight as it rested on the door frame, and the line of tension that ran through leg and shoulder. He was strung like a harp; if I had touched him, he would have given off a low twanging noise.

“Quite all right,” I said pleasantly. “Would Lord John care for some refreshment, do you think?”

I put the kettle on to boil for tea, and—with an inner sigh—took out the last loaf of bread, which I had meant to use for my next round of penicillin experiments. Feeling that the emergency justified it, I brought out the last bottle of brandy as well. Then I put the jampot on the table, explaining that the butter was unfortunately in the custody of the pig at the moment.

“Pig?” said William, looking confused.

“In the pantry,” I said, with a nod at the closed door.

“Why do you keep—” he started, then sat up sharply and closed his mouth, having obviously been kicked under the table by his stepfather, who was smiling pleasantly over his cup.

“It is very kind of you to receive us, Mrs. Fraser,” Lord John interjected, giving his stepson a warning eye. “I do apologize for our unexpected arrival; I hope we do not discommode you too greatly.”

“Not at all,” I said, wondering just where we were going to put them to sleep. William could go to the shed with Ian, I supposed; it was no worse than sleeping rough, as he had been doing. But the thought of sharing a bed with Jamie, with Lord John on the trundle an arm’s-length away…

Ian, with his usual instinct for mealtimes, appeared at this delicate point in the proceedings, and was introduced all round, with such a confusion of explanations and reciprocal bowing in cramped quarters that the teapot was knocked over.

Using this minor disaster as an excuse, I sent Ian off to show William the attractions of wood and stream, with a packet of jam sandwiches and a bottle of cider to share between them. Then, free of their inhibiting presences, I filled the cups with brandy, sat down again, and fixed John Grey with a narrow eye.

“What are you doing here?” I said, without preamble.

He opened his light blue eyes very wide, then lowered his very long lashes and batted them deliberately at me.

“I did not come with the intention of seducing your husband, I assure you,” he said.

“John!” Jamie’s fist struck the table with a force that rattled the teacups. His cheekbones were flushed dark red, and he was scowling with embarrassed fury.

“Sorry.” Grey, by contrast, had gone white, though he remained otherwise visibly unruffled. It occurred to me for the first time that he might possibly be as unnerved as Jamie by this meeting.

“My apologies, ma’am,” he said, with a curt nod in my direction. “That was unforgivable. I would point out, however, that you have been looking at me since we met as though you had encountered me lying in the gutter outside some notorious mollyhouse.” A light flush burned over his face now, too.

“Sorry,” I breathed. “Give me a bit more notice next time, and I’ll take care to adjust my features.”

He stood up suddenly and went to the window, where he stood with his back to the room, hands braced on the sill. There was an exceedingly awkward silence. I didn’t want to look at Jamie; instead I affected great interest in a bottle of fennel seeds that stood on the table.

“My wife has died,” he said abruptly. “On the ship between England and Jamaica. She was coming to join me there.”

“I am sorry to hear of it,” Jamie said quietly. “The lad will have been with her?”

“Yes.” Lord John turned back, leaning against the sill, so that the spring sunlight silhouetted his neat head and gave him a gleaming halo. “Willie was—very close to Isobel. She was the only mother he’d known since his birth.”

Willie’s true mother, Geneva Dunsany, had died in giving birth to him; his presumed father, the Earl of Ellesmere, had died the same day, in an accident. So much, Jamie had already told me. Likewise, that Geneva’s sister, Isobel, had taken care of the orphaned boy, and that John Grey had married Isobel when Willie was six or so—at the time Jamie had left the Dunsanys’ employ.

“I’m very sorry,” I said, sincerely, and didn’t mean only the death of his wife.

Grey glanced at me, and gave me the shadow of a nod in acknowledgment.

“My appointment as governor was nearly at an end; I had intended perhaps to take up residence on the island, should the climate suit my family. As it was…” He shrugged.

“Willie was grief-stricken by the loss of his mother; it seemed advisable to seek to distract his mind by whatever means I could. An opportunity presented itself almost at once; my wife’s estate includes a large property in Virginia, which she had bequeathed to William. Upon her death, I received inquiries from the factor of the plantation, asking for instruction.”

He moved away from the window, coming slowly back toward the table where we sat.

“I could not well decide what to do with the property without seeing it, and evaluating the conditions that obtain here. So I determined that we should sail to Charleston, and from there, travel overland to Virginia. I trusted to the novelty of the experience to divert William from his grief—which I am pleased to observe, it seems to have done. He has been much more cheerful these past weeks.”

I opened my mouth to say that Fraser’s Ridge seemed a bit out of his way, regardless, but then thought better of it.

He appeared to guess what I was thinking, for he gave me a brief wry smile. I really would have to do something about my face, I thought. Having Jamie read my thoughts was one thing, and not at all unpleasant, on the whole. Having total strangers walk in and out of my mind at will was something else.

“Where is the plantation?” Jamie asked, with somewhat more tact but the same implication.

“The nearest town of any sort is called Lynchburg—on the James River.” Lord John looked at me, still wry, but apparent good humor restored. “It is in fact no more than a few days deviation in our journey to come here, in spite of the remoteness of your aerie.”

He switched his attention to Jamie, frowning slightly.

“I told Willie that you are an old acquaintance of mine, from my soldiering days—I trust you do not object to the deception?”

Jamie shook his head, one side of his mouth turning up a bit. “Deception, is it? I shouldna think I could well mind what ye called me, under the circumstances. And so far as that bit goes, it’s true enough.”

“You don’t think he’ll remember you?” I asked Jamie. He had been a groom on Willie’s home estate; a prisoner of war following the Jacobite Rising.

He hesitated, but then shook his head.

“I dinna think so. He was barely six when I left Helwater; that will be half a lifetime ago, to a lad—and a world away. And there’s no reason he should think to recall a groom named MacKenzie, let alone connect the name wi’ me.”

Willie hadn’t recognized Jamie on sight, certainly, but then he had been too concerned with the leeches to take much notice of anyone. A thought struck me, and I turned to Lord John, who was fiddling with a snuffbox he had taken from his pocket.

“Tell me,” I said, moved by a sudden impulse. “I don’t mean to distress you—but…do you know how your wife died?”

“How?” He looked startled at the question, but collected himself at once. “She died of a bloody flux, so her maid said.” His mouth twisted slightly. “It was…not a pleasant death, I believe.” Bloody flux, eh? That was the standard description for anything from amebic dysentery to cholera.

“Was there a doctor? Someone on board who took care of her?”

“There was,” he said, a little sharply. “What do you imply, ma’am?”

“Nothing,” I said. “It’s only that I wondered whether perhaps that was where Willie saw leeches used.”

A flicker of understanding crossed his face.

“Oh, I see. I hadn’t thought—”

At this point, I noticed Ian, who was hovering in the doorway, obviously reluctant to interrupt but with a marked look of urgency on his face.

“Did you want something, Ian?” I asked, interrupting Lord John.

He shook his head, brown hair flying.

“No, I thank ye, Auntie. It’s only—” He cast a helpless glance at Jamie. “Well, I’m sorry, Uncle, I ken I shouldna ha’ let him do it, but—”

“What?” Alarmed by Ian’s tone of voice, Jamie was already on his feet. “What have ye done?”

The lad twisted his big hands together, cracking his knuckles in embarrassment.

“Well, ye see, his Lordship asked for the privy, and so I told him about the snake, and that he’d best go into the wood instead. So he did, but then he wanted to see the snake, and…and…”

“He’s not bitten?” Jamie asked anxiously. Lord John, who had obviously been about to ask the same thing, gave him a glance.

“Oh, no!” Ian looked surprised. “We couldna see it to start with, because it was too dark below. So we lifted off the benchtop to get more light. We could see the serpent fine, then, and we poked at it a bit wi’ a long branch, so it was lashin’ to and fro like the wee book said, but it didna seem inclined to bite itself. And—and—” He darted a glance at Lord John, and swallowed audibly.

“It was my fault,” he said, nobly squaring his shoulders, the better to accept blame. “I said as how I’d thought to shoot it earlier, but we didna want to waste the powder. And so his Lordship said as how he would fetch his papa’s pistol from the saddlebag and deal with the thing at once. And so—”

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