“What was it happened, Mr. Abel?” Marsali still clasped his hand, though it lay quite limp, palm-down on the red kerchief.
MacLennan looked up then, blinking.
“Oh,” he said vaguely. “So much happened. And yet . . . not really very much, after all. Abby—Abigail, my wife—she died of a fever. She got cold, and . . . she died.” He sounded faintly surprised.
Jamie poured a bit of whisky into an empty cup, picked up one of MacLennan’s unresisting hands, and folded it around the cup, holding the fingers in place with his own, until MacLennan’s hand tightened its grasp.
“Drink it, man,” he said.
Everyone was silent, watching as MacLennan obediently tasted the whisky, sipped, sipped again. Young Private Ogilvie shifted uneasily on his stone, looking as though he should like to return to his regiment, but he too stayed put, as though fearing an abrupt departure might somehow injure MacLennan further.
MacLennan’s very stillness drew every eye, froze all talk. My hand hovered uneasily over the bottles in my chest, but I had no remedy for this.
“I had enough,” he said suddenly. “I did.” He looked up from his cup and glanced round the fire, as though challenging anyone to dispute him. “For the taxes, aye? It was no so good a year as it might have been, but I was careful. I’d ten bushels of corn put aside, and four good deer hides. It was worth more than the six shillings of the tax.”
But the taxes must be paid in hard currency; not in corn and hides and blocks of indigo, as the farmers did their business. Barter was the common means of trade—I knew that well enough, I thought, glancing down at the bag of odd things folk had brought me in payment for my herbs and simples. No one ever paid for anything in money—save the taxes.
“Well, that’s only reasonable,” said MacLennan, blinking earnestly at Private Ogilvie, as though the young man had protested. “His Majesty canna well be doing wi’ a herd of pigs, or a brace of turkeys, now, can he? No, I see quite well why it must be hard money, anyone could. And I had the corn; it would ha’ brought six shillings, easy.”
The only difficulty, of course, lay in turning ten bushels of corn into six shillings of tax. There were those in Drunkard’s Creek who might have bought Abel’s corn, and were willing—but no one in Drunkard’s Creek had money, either. No, the corn must be taken to market in Salem; that was the closest place where hard coin might be obtained. But Salem lay nearly forty miles from Drunkard’s Creek—a week’s journey, there and back.
“I’d five acres in late barley,” Abel explained. “Ripe and yellochtie, achin’ for the scythe. I couldna leave it to be spoilt, and my Abby—she was a wee, slight woman, she couldna be scything and threshing.”
Unable to spare a week from his harvest, Abel had instead sought help from his neighbors.
“They’re guid folk,” he insisted. “One or two could spare me the odd penny—but they’d their ain taxes to pay, hadn’t they?” Still hoping somehow to scrape up the necessary coin without undertaking the arduous trip to Salem, Abel had delayed—and delayed too long.
“Howard Travers is Sheriff,” he said, and wiped unconsciously at the drop of moisture that formed at the end of his nose. “He came with a paper, and said he mun’ put us oot, and the taxes not paid.”
Faced with necessity, Abel had left his wife in their cabin, and gone posthaste to Salem. But by the time he returned, six shillings in hand, his property had been seized and sold—to Howard Travers’s father-in-law—and his cabin was inhabited by strangers, his wife gone.
“I kent she’d no go far,” he explained. “She’d not leave the bairns.”
And that in fact was where he found her, wrapped in a threadbare quilt and shivering under the big spruce tree on the hill that sheltered the graves of the four MacLennan children, all dead in their first year of life. In spite of his entreaties, Abigail would not go down to the cabin that had been theirs, would seek no aid from those who had dispossessed her. If it was madness from the fever that gripped her, or only stubbornness, he could not tell; she had clung to the branches of the tree with demented strength, crying out the names of her children—and there had died in the night.
His whisky cup was empty. He set it carefully on the ground by his feet, ignoring Jamie’s gesture toward the bottle.
“They’d given her leave to carry awa what she could. She’d a bundle with her, and her grave-claes in it. I ken weel her sitting down the day after we were wed, to spin her winding-sheet. It had wee flowers all along one edge, that she’d made; she was a good hand wi’ a needle.”
He had wrapped Abigail in her embroidered shroud, buried her by the side of their youngest child, and then walked two miles down the road, intending, he thought, to tell the Hobsons what had happened.
“But I came to the house, and found them all abuzzing like hornets—Hugh Fowles had had a visit from Travers, come for the tax, and no money to pay. Travers grinned like an ape and said it was all one to him—and sure enough, ten days later he came along wi’ a paper and three men, and put them oot.”
Hobson had scraped up the money to pay his own taxes, and the Fowleses were crowded in safely enough with the rest of the family—but Joe Hobson was foaming with wrath over the treatment of his son-in-law.
“He was a-rantin’, Joe, bleezin’ mad wi’ fury. Janet Hobson bid me come and sit, and offered me supper, and there was Joe shoutin’ that he’d take the price of the land out of Howard Travers’s hide, and Hugh slumped down like a trampled dog, and his wife greetin’, and the weans all squealin’ for their dinners like a brood o’ piglets, and . . . well, I thought of telling them, but then . . .” He shook his head, as though confused anew.
Sitting half-forgotten in the chimney-corner, he had been overcome by a strange sort of fatigue, one that made him so tired that his head nodded on his neck, lethargy stealing over him. It was warm, and he was overcome with a sense of unreality. If the crowded confines of the Hobsons’ one-roomed cabin were not real, neither was the quiet hillside and its fresh grave beneath the spruce tree.
He slept under the table, and woke before dawn, to find that the sense of unreality persisted. Everything around him seemed no more than a waking dream. MacLennan himself seemed to have ceased to exist; his body rose, washed itself, and ate, nodded and spoke without his cognizance. None of the outer world existed any longer. And so it was that when Joe Hobson had risen and announced that he and Hugh would go to Hillsborough, there to seek redress from the Court, that Abel MacLennan had found himself marching down the road along with them, nodding and speaking when spoken to, with no more will than a dead man.
“It did come to me, walkin’ doon the road, as we were all dead,” he said dreamily. “Me and Joe and Hugh and the rest. I might sae well be one place as anither; it was only moving ’til the time came to lay my bones beside Abby. I didna mind it.”
When they reached Hillsborough, he had paid no great mind to what Joe intended; only followed, obedient and unthinking. Followed, and walked the muddy streets sparkling with broken glass from shattered windows, seen the torchlight and mobs, heard the shouts and screams—all quite unmoved.
“It was no but dead men, a-rattling their bones against one anither,” he said with a shrug. He was still for a moment, then turned his face to Jamie, and looked long and earnestly up into his face.
“Is it so? Are ye dead, too?” One limp, callused hand floated up from the red kerchief, and rested lightly against the bone of Jamie’s cheek.
Jamie didn’t recoil from the touch, but took MacLennan’s hand and brought it down again, held tight between his own.
“No, a charaid,” he said softly. “Not yet.”
MacLennan nodded slowly.
“Aye. Give it time,” he said. He pulled his hands free and sat for a moment, smoothing his kerchief. His head kept bobbing, nodding slightly, as though the spring of his neck had stretched too far.
“Give it time,” he repeated. “It’s none sae bad.” He stood up then, and put the square of red cloth on his head. He turned to me and nodded politely, his eyes vague and troubled.
“I thank ye for the breakfast, ma’am,” he said, and walked away.
ABEL MACLENNAN’S DEPARTURE put an abrupt end to breakfast. Private Ogilvie excused himself with thanks, Jamie and Fergus went off in search of scythes and astrolabes, and Lizzie, wilting in the absence of Private Ogilvie, declared that she felt unwell and subsided palely into one of the lean-to shelters, fortified with a large cup of tansy and rue decoction.
Fortunately, Brianna chose to reappear just then, sans Jemmy. She and Roger had breakfasted with Jocasta, she assured me. Jemmy had fallen asleep in Jocasta’s arms, and since both parties appeared content with that arrangement, she had left him there, and come back to help me with the morning’s clinic.
“Are you sure you want to help me this morning?” I eyed Bree dubiously. “It’s your wedding day, after all. I’m sure Lizzie or maybe Mrs. Martin could—”
“No, I’ll do it,” she assured me, swiping a cloth across the seat of the tall stool I used for my morning surgery. “Lizzie’s feeling better, but I don’t think she’s up to festering feet and putrid stomachs.” She gave a small shudder, closing her eyes at the memory of the elderly gentleman whose ulcerated heel I had debrided the day before. The pain had caused him to vomit copiously on his tattered breeches, which in turn had caused several of the people waiting for my attention to throw up too, in sympathetic reflex.
I felt a trifle queasy at the memory myself, but drowned it with a final gulp of bitter coffee.
“No, I suppose not,” I agreed reluctantly. “Still, your gown isn’t quite finished, is it? Perhaps you should go—”
“It’s fine,” she assured me. “Phaedre’s hemming my dress, and Ulysses is ordering all the servants around up there like a drill sergeant. I’d just be in the way.”
I gave way without further demur, though I wondered a little at her alacrity. While Bree wasn’t squeamish about the exigencies of normal life, like skinning animals and cleaning fish, I knew the proximity of people with disfiguring conditions or obvious illness bothered her, though she did her best to disguise it. It wasn’t distaste, I thought, but rather a crippling empathy.
I lifted the kettle and poured freshly boiled water into a large, half-full jar of distilled alcohol, narrowing my eyes against hot clouds of alcoholic steam.
It was difficult to see so many people suffering from things that could have been easily treated in a time of antiseptics, antibiotics, and anesthesia—but I had learned detachment in the field hospitals of a time when such medical innovations were not only new but rare, and I knew both the necessity and the value of it.
I could not help anyone, if my own feelings got in the way. And I must help. It was as simple as that. But Brianna had no such knowledge to use as a shield. Not yet.