Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 92

   

“Ian,” said Jamie between his teeth. “Stop blethering this instant and tell me straight what ye’ve done wi’ the lad. Ye’ve not shot him by mistake, I hope?”

Ian looked offended at this slur upon his marksmanship.

“Of course not!” he said.

Lord John coughed politely, forestalling further recriminations.

“Perhaps you would be good enough to tell me the whereabouts of my son at this moment?”

Ian took a deep breath and visibly commended his soul to God.

“He’s in the bottom of the privy,” he said. “Have ye got a bit o’ rope, Uncle Jamie?”

With an admirable economy of both words and motion, Jamie reached the door in two strides and disappeared, closely followed by Lord John.

“Is he in there with the snake?” I asked, hastily scrabbling through the washbasket for something to use as a tourniquet, just in case.

“Oh, no, Auntie,” Ian assured me. “Ye dinna think I’d have left him, and the serpent was still there? Maybe I’d best go help,” he added, and disappeared as well.

I hurried after him, to find Jamie and Lord John standing shoulder to shoulder in the doorway of the privy, conversing with the depths. Standing on tiptoe to peer over Lord John’s shoulder, I saw the torn butt end of a long, slender hickory branch protruding a few inches above the edge of the oblong hole. I held my breath; Lord Ellesmere’s struggles had stirred up the contents of the privy, and the reek was enough to sear the cilia off my nasal membranes.

“He says he’s not hurt,” Jamie assured me, turning away from the hole and unlimbering a coil of rope from his shoulder.

“Good,” I said. “Where’s the snake, though?” I peeked nervously into the outhouse, but couldn’t see anything beyond the silvery cedar boards and the dark recesses of the pit.

“It went that way,” Ian said, gesturing vaguely down the path by which I had come. “The laddie couldna quite get a clear shot, so I gave the thing a wee snoove wi’ the stick, and damned if the bugger didna turn and come at me, right up the branch! It scairt me so I let out a skelloch and let go, and I bumped the lad, and—well, that’s how it happened,” he ended lamely.

Trying to avoid Jamie’s eye, he sidled toward the pit and, leaning over, yelled awkwardly, “Hey! I’m glad ye didna break your neck!”

Jamie gave him a look that said rather plainly that if necks were to be broken…but forbore further remarks in the interests of extracting William promptly from his oubliette. This procedure was carried out without further incident, and the would-be marksman was lifted out, clinging to the rope like a caterpillar on a string.

There had luckily been enough sewage in the bottom of the pit to break his fall. From appearances, the ninth Earl of Ellesmere had landed facedown. Lord John stood for a moment on the path, wiping his hands on his breeches and surveying the encrusted object before him. He rubbed the back of a hand over his mouth, trying either to hide a smile or to stifle his sense of smell.

Then his shoulders started to shake.

“What news from the Underworld, Persephone?” he said, unable to keep the quaver of laughter out of his voice.

A pair of slanted eyes looked blue murder out of the mask of filth obscuring his Lordship’s features. It was a thoroughly Fraser expression, and I felt a qualm go through me at the sight. By my side, Ian gave a sudden start. He glanced quickly from the Earl to Jamie and back, then he caught my eye and his own face went perfectly and unnaturally blank.

Jamie was saying something in Greek, to which Lord John replied in the same language, whereupon both men laughed like loons. Trying to ignore Ian, I bent an eye in Jamie’s direction. Shoulders still shaking with suppressed mirth, he saw fit to enlighten me.

“Epicharmus,” he explained. “At the Oracle of Delphi, seekers after enlightenment would throw down a dead python into the pit, and then hang about, breathing in the fumes as it decayed.”

Lord John declaimed, gesturing grandly. “ ‘The spirit toward the heavens, the body to the earth.’ ”

William exhaled strongly through his nose, precisely as Jamie did when tried beyond bearing. Ian twitched beside me. Good grief, I thought, freshly unnerved. Does the boy have nothing from his mother?

“And have you attained any spiritual insights as a result of your recent m-mystical experience, William?” Lord John asked, making a poor attempt at self-control. He and Jamie were both flushed, with a laughter that I thought due as much to the release of nervous tension as to brandy or hilarity.

His Lordship, glowering, pulled off his neckcloth and flung it on the path with a soggy splat. Now Ian was giggling nervously, too, unable to help himself. My own belly muscles were quivering under the strain, but I could see that the patches of exposed flesh above William’s collar were the color of the ripe tomatoes by the privy. Knowing all too well what usually happened to a Fraser who reached that particular level of incandescence, I thought the time had come to break up the party.

“Er-hem,” I said, clearing my throat. “If you will allow me, gentlemen? Unlearned as I am in Greek philosophy, there is one small epigram I know by heart.”

I handed William the jar of lye soap I had brought in lieu of a tourniquet.

“Pindar,” I said. “ ‘Water is best.’ ”

A small flash of what might have been gratitude showed through the muck. His Lordship bowed to me, with utmost correctness, then turned, gave Ian a fishy stare, and stomped off through the grass toward the creek, dripping. He seemed to have lost his shoes.

“Puir clarty bugger,” Ian said, shaking his head mournfully. “It’ll be days before he gets the stink off.”

“No doubt.” Lord John’s lips were still twitching, but the urge to declaim Greek poetry seemed to have left him, replaced by less elevated concerns. “Do you know what has become of my pistol, by the way? The one William was using before his unfortunate accident?”

“Oh.” Ian looked uncomfortable. He lifted his chin in the direction of the privy. “I…ah…well, I’m verra much afraid—”

“I see.” Lord John rubbed his own immaculately barbered chin.

Jamie fixed Ian with a long stare.

“Ah…” said Ian, backing up a pace or two.

“Get it,” said Jamie, in a tone that brooked no contradiction.

“But—” said Ian.

“Now,” said his uncle, and dropped the slimy rope at his feet.

Ian’s Adam’s apple bobbed, once. He looked at me, wide-eyed as a rabbit.

“Take your clothes off first,” I said helpfully. “We don’t want to have to burn them, do we?”

26

PLAGUE AND PESTILENCE

I left the house just before sunset, to check on my patient in the corncrib. He was no better, but neither was he visibly worse; the same labored breathing and burning fever. This time, though, the sunken eyes met mine when I entered the shed, and stayed on my face as I examined him.

He still had the raven’s-feather amulet, clutched in his hand. I touched it and smiled at him, then gave him a drink. He still would take no food but had a little milk, and swallowed without protest another dose of my febrifuge. He lay motionless through examination and feeding, but as I was wringing out a hot cloth to poultice his chest, he suddenly reached out a hand and grabbed my arm.

He thumped his chest with his other hand, and made an odd humming noise. This puzzled me for a moment, until I realized that he was humming.

“Really?” I said. I reached for the packet of poulticing herbs and folded them into the cloth. “Well, all right then. Let me think.”

I settled on “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” which he appeared to like—I was obliged to sing it through three times before he seemed satisfied and sank back on his blanket with a small spate of coughing, wrapped in camphor fumes.

I paused outside the house, cleansing my hands carefully with the bottle of alcohol I carried. I was sure I was safe from contagion—I had had measles as a child—but wanted to take no chance of infecting anyone else.

“There was talk of an outbreak of the red measle in Cross Creek,” Lord John remarked, upon my reporting to Jamie the condition of our guest. “Is it true, Mrs. Fraser, that the savage is congenitally less able to withstand infection than are Europeans, while African slaves are yet more hardy than their masters?”

“Depends on the infection,” I said, peering into the cauldron and giving the stew bottle a cautious poke. “The Indians are a lot more resistant to the parasitic diseases—malaria, say—caused by organisms here, and the Africans deal better with things like dengue fever—which came with them from Africa, after all. But the Indians haven’t much resistance to European plagues like smallpox and syphilis, no.”

Lord John looked a bit taken aback, which gave me a small sense of satisfaction; evidently he had only asked out of courtesy—he hadn’t actually expected me to know anything.

“How fascinating,” he said, though, sounding truly interested. “You refer to organisms? Do you then subscribe to Mister Evan Hunter’s theory of miasmatical creatures?”

Now it was my turn to be taken aback.

“Er…not precisely, no,” I said, and changed the subject.

We passed a pleasant enough evening, Jamie and Lord John exchanging anecdotes of hunting and fishing, with remarks on the amazing abundance of the countryside, while I darned stockings.

Willie and Ian had a game of chess, which the latter won, to his evident satisfaction. His Lordship yawned hugely, then catching his father’s minatory eye, made a belated attempt to cover his mouth. He relaxed into a sleepy smile of contentment, brought on by repletion; he and Ian between them had demolished an entire currant cake, following their huge supper.

Jamie saw it, and cocked a brow at Ian, who obligingly rose and towed his Lordship away to share his pallet in the herb shed. Two down, I thought, keeping my eyes resolutely away from the bed—and three to go.

In the event, the delicate problem of bedtime was solved by my retiring, cloaked in modesty—or at least in my nightgown—while Jamie and Lord John took over the chess table, drinking the last of the brandy by firelight.

Lord John was a much better chess player than I—or so I deduced from the fact that the game took them a good hour. Jamie could normally beat me in twenty minutes flat. The play was mostly silent, though with brief spurts of conversation.

At last Lord John made a move, sat back and stretched, as though concluding something.

“I collect you will not see much disturbance in the political way, here in your mountain refuge?” he said casually. He squinted at the board, considering.

“I do envy you, Jamie, removed from such petty difficulties as afflict the merchants and gentry of the lowlands. If your life has its hardships—as cannot help but be the case—you have the not inconsiderable consolation of knowing your struggles to be significant and heroic.”

Jamie snorted briefly.

“Oh, aye. Verra heroic, to be sure. At the moment, my most heroic struggle is like to be with the pig in my pantry.” He nodded toward the board, one eyebrow raised. “Ye really mean to make that move?”

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