Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 93

   

Grey narrowed his eyes at Jamie, then looked down, studying the board with pursed lips.

“Yes, I do,” he answered firmly.

“Damn,” said Jamie, and with a grin, reached out and tipped over his king in resignation.

Grey laughed, and reached for the brandy bottle.

“Damn!” he said in turn, finding it empty. Jamie laughed, and rising, went to the cupboard.

“Try a bit of this,” he said, and I heard the musical glug of liquid into a cup.

Grey lifted the cup to his nose, inhaled and sneezed explosively, scattering droplets over the table.

“It’s not wine, John,” Jamie observed mildly. “Ye’re meant to drink it, aye? not savor the bouquet.”

“So I noticed. Christ, what is it?” Grey sniffed again, more cautiously, and essayed a trial sip. He choked, but swallowed gamely.

“Christ,” he said again. His voice was hoarse. He coughed, cleared his throat, and set the cup gingerly on the table, eyeing it as though it might explode.

“Don’t tell me,” he said. “Let me guess. It’s meant to be Scotch whisky?”

“In ten years or so, it might be,” Jamie answered, pouring a small cupful for himself. He took a small sip, rolled it around his mouth and swallowed, shaking his head. “At the moment, it’s alcohol, and that’s as much as I’d say for it.”

“Yes, it’s that,” Grey agreed, taking another very small sip. “Where did you get it?”

“I made it,” said Jamie, with the modest pride of a master brewer. “I’ve twelve barrels of the stuff.”

Grey’s fair brows shot up at that.

“Assuming that you don’t mean to clean your boots with it, may I ask what you intend doing with twelve barrels of this?”

Jamie laughed.

“Trade it,” he said. “Sell it, when I can. Customs tax and a license to brew spirits being one of the petty political concerns wi’ which I am not afflicted, owing to our remoteness,” he added ironically.

Lord John grunted, tried another sip, and set the cup down.

“Well, you may well escape the Customs, I’ll grant you—the nearest agent is in Cross Creek. But I cannot say I think it a safe practice on that account. To whom, may I ask, are you selling this remarkable concoction? Not to the savages, I trust?”

Jamie shrugged.

“Only verra small amounts—a flask or two at a time, as a gift or in trade. Never more than would make one man drunk.”

“Very wise. You’ll have heard the stories, I expect. I spoke with one man who’d survived the massacre at Michilimackinac, during the war with the French. That was caused—in part, at least—by a great quantity of drink falling into the hands of a large gathering of Indians at the fort.”

“I’ve heard about it, too,” Jamie assured him dryly. “But we are on good terms wi’ the Indians nearby, and there are none so many of them as all that. And I’m careful, as I say.”

“Mm.” He essayed another sip, and grimaced. “I expect you risk more by poisoning one of them than by intoxicating a mob.” He set the glass down and changed the subject.

“I have heard talk in Wilmington of an unruly group of men called Regulators, who terrorize the backcountry and cause disruption by means of riot. Have you encountered anything of such nature here?”

Jamie snorted briefly.

“Terrorize what? Squirrels? There is the backcountry, John, and then there is the wilderness. Surely ye will have remarked the lack of human habitation on your journey here.”

“I did notice something of the kind,” Lord John agreed. “And yet I had heard certain rumors regarding your presence here—that it was in part meant as a quelling influence upon the growth of lawlessness.”

Jamie laughed.

“I think it will be some time before there is much lawlessness for me to quell. Though I did go so far as to knock down an old German farmer who was abusing a young woman at the grain mill on the river. He had it in mind she had given him short weight—which she had not—and I couldna convince him otherwise. But that is my only attempt so far at maintaining public order.”

Grey laughed, and picked up the fallen king.

“I am relieved to hear it. Will you redeem your honor with another game? I cannot expect the same trick to work twice, after all.”

I rolled onto my side, facing the wall, and stared sleeplessly at the timbers. The firelight glimmered on the wing-shaped marks of the ax, running along the length of each log, regular as sand ripples on a beach.

I tried to ignore the conversation going on behind me, to lose myself instead in the memory of Jamie hewing bark and squaring logs, of sleeping in his arms under the shelter of a half-built wall, feeling the house rise up around me, enclosing me in warmth and safety, the permanent embodiment of his embrace. I always felt safe and soothed by this vision, even when I was alone on the mountain, knowing I was protected by the house he had built for me. Tonight, though, it wasn’t working.

I lay still, wondering exactly what was the matter with me. Or rather, not what, but why. I knew by now what it was, all right; it was jealousy.

I was indeed jealous; an emotion I hadn’t felt for some years, and was appalled to feel now. I rolled onto my back and closed my eyes, trying to shut out the murmur of conversation.

Lord John had been nothing but courtesy itself to me. More than that, he had been intelligent, thoughtful—thoroughly charming, in fact. And listening to him making intelligent, thoughtful, charming conversation with Jamie knotted my insides and made me clench my hands under cover of the quilt.

You are an idiot, I told myself savagely. What is the matter with you? I tried to relax, breathing deeply through my nose, eyes closed.

Part of it was Willie, of course. Jamie was very careful, but I had seen his expression when he looked at the boy in unguarded moments. His whole body was suffused with shy joy, pride mingled with diffidence; and it smote me to the heart to see it.

He would never look at Brianna, his firstborn, that way. Would never see her at all. That was hardly his fault—and yet it seemed so unfair. At the same time, I could scarcely begrudge him his joy in his son—and didn’t, I told myself firmly. The fact that it gave me a terrible pang of longing to look at the boy, with that bold, handsome face that mirrored his sister’s, was simply my problem. Nothing to do with Jamie, or with Willie. Or with John Grey, who’d brought the boy here.

What for? That was what I’d been thinking ever since I had recovered from the first shock of their appearance, and that was still what I was thinking. What in hell was the man up to?

The story about the estate in Virginia might be true—or only an excuse. Even if it was true, it was a considerable detour to come to Fraser’s Ridge. Why had he taken so much trouble to bring the boy here? And so much risk; Willie was clearly oblivious to the resemblance that even Ian had noticed, but what if he hadn’t been? Had it been so important to Grey, to restate his claim on Jamie’s obligation to him?

I rolled onto my other side and cracked an eyelid, watching them over the chessboard, redhead and fair head, bent together in absorption. Grey moved a knight and sat back, rubbing the back of his neck, smiling to himself at the effect of his move. He was a good-looking man; slight and fine-boned, but with a strong, clear-cut face and a beautiful, sensitive mouth that many a woman had no doubt envied.

Grey was even better at guarding his face than Jamie was; I hadn’t yet seen an incriminating look from him. I’d seen one once, though, in Jamaica, and wasn’t in any doubt about the nature of his feelings for Jamie.

On the other hand, I wasn’t in any doubt about Jamie’s feelings in that regard, either. The knot under my heart eased a bit, and I took a deeper breath. No matter how late they sat up over the board, drinking and talking, it would be my bed Jamie came to.

I unclenched my fists, and it was then, as I rubbed my palms covertly against my thighs, that I realized with a shock just why Lord John affected me so strongly.

My fingernails had dug small crescents in my palms, a small line of throbbing half-moons. For years, I had rubbed away those crescents after every dinner party, every late night when Frank had “worked at the office.” For years, I had lain intermittently alone in a double bed, wide-awake in the darkness, nails digging into my hands, waiting for him to come back.

And he had. To his credit, he always did return before dawn. Sometimes to a back curled against him in cold reproach, sometimes to the furious challenge of a body thrust against him in demand, urging him wordlessly to deny it, to prove his innocence with his body—trial by combat. More often than not, he accepted the challenge. But it didn’t help.

Yet neither of us spoke of such things in the daylight. I could not; I had no right. Frank did not; he had revenge.

Sometimes it would be months—even a year or more—between episodes, and we would live in peace together. But then it would happen again; the silent phone calls, the too-excused absences, the late nights. Never anything so overt as another woman’s perfume, or lipstick on his collar—he had discretion. But I always felt the ghost of the other woman, whoever she was; some faceless, indistinguishable She.

I knew it didn’t matter who it was—there were several of them. The only important thing was that She was not me. And I would lie awake and clench my fists, the marks of my nails a small crucifixion.

The murmur of conversation by the fire had mostly ceased; the only sound the small click of the chessmen as they moved.

“Do you feel yourself content?” Lord John asked suddenly.

Jamie paused for a moment.

“I have all that man could want,” he said quietly. “A place, and honorable work. My wife at my side. The knowledge that my son is safe and well cared for.” He looked up then, at Grey. “And a good friend.” He reached over, clasped Lord John’s hand, and let it go. “I want no more.”

I shut my eyes resolutely, and began to count sheep.

I was awakened just before dawn by Ian, crouching by my bedside.

“Auntie,” he said softly, a hand on my shoulder. “Best ye come; the man in the corncrib’s verra poorly.”

I was on my feet by reflex, wrapped in my cloak and moving bare-footed after Ian before my mind had even begun to function consciously. Not that any great diagnostic skill was needed; I could hear the deep, rattling respirations from ten feet away.

The Earl hovered by the doorway, his thin face pale and scared in the gray light.

“Go away,” I told him sharply. “You mustn’t be near him; nor you, Ian—the two of you go to the house, fetch me hot water from the cauldron, my box, and clean rags.”

Willie moved at once, eager to be away from the frightening sounds coming from the shed. Ian lingered, though, his face troubled.

“I dinna think ye can help him, Auntie,” he said quietly. His eyes met mine straight on, with an adult depth of understanding.

“Very likely not,” I said, answering him in the same terms. “But I can’t do nothing.”

He took a deep breath, nodded.

“Aye. But I think…” He hesitated, then went on as I nodded, “I think ye shouldna torment him wi’ medicine. He’s fixed to die, Auntie; we heard an owl in the night—he will have heard it, too. It is a sign of death to them.”

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