“There were children crying, but not me. I wasn’t really afraid at all.” He hadn’t been afraid, because Mum was holding his hand. If she was there, nothing bad could happen.
“There was a big thump nearby. I could see the lights shake. Then there was a noise like something tearing overhead. Everyone looked up and began to scream.”
The crack through the slanted ceiling hadn’t looked particularly frightening; just a thin black line that zigzagged back and forth like a jigsaw snake, following the lines of the tiles. But then it widened suddenly, a gaping maw like a dragon’s mouth, and dirt and tiles began to pour down.
He had long since thawed, and yet every hair on his body rippled now with gooseflesh. His heart pounded against the inside of his chest, and he felt as though the noose had drawn tight about his neck again.
“She let go,” he said, in a strangled whisper. “She let go my hand.”
Brianna’s hand gripped his in both of hers, hard, trying to save the child he’d been.
“She had to,” she said, in an urgent whisper. “Roger, she wouldn’t have let go unless she had to.”
“No.” He shook his head violently. “That’s not what—I mean—wait. Wait a minute, OK?”
He blinked hard, trying to slow his breathing, fitting back the shattered pieces of that night. Confusion, frenzy, pain . . . but what had actually happened? He had kept nothing save an impression of bedlam. But he had lived through it; he must know what had happened—if he could bring himself to live through it again.
Brianna’s hand clutched his, her fingers still squeezing tight enough to stop the blood. He patted her hand, gently, and her grip relaxed a little.
He closed his eyes, and let it happen.
“I didn’t remember at first,” he said at last, quietly. “Or rather, I did—but I remembered what people told me had happened.” He had had no memory of being carried unconscious through the tunnel, and once rescued, he had spent several weeks being shuttled round Aid shelters and foster homes with other orphans, mute with terrified bewilderment.
“I knew my name, of course, and my address, but that didn’t help much under the circumstances. My dad had already gone down—anyway, by the time the Aid people located Gran’s brother—that was the Reverend—and he came to fetch me, they’d pieced together the story of what happened in the shelter.
“It was a miracle that I hadn’t been killed with everyone else on that stair, they told me. They said my mother must somehow have lost hold of me in the panic—I must have been separated from her and carried down the stair by the crowd; that’s how I ended on the lower level, where the roof hadn’t given way.”
Brianna’s hand was still curled over his, protective, but no longer squeezing.
“But now you remember what happened?” she asked quietly.
“I did remember her letting go my hand,” he said. “And so I thought the rest of it was right, too. But it wasn’t.
“She let go my hand,” he said. The words came more easily now; the tightness in his throat and chest was gone. “She let go my hand . . . and then she picked me up. That small woman—she picked me up, and threw me over the wall. Down into the crowd of people on the platform below. I was knocked mostly out by the fall, I think—but I remember the roar as the roof went. No one on the stair survived.”
She pressed her face against his chest, and he felt her take a deep, shuddering breath. He stroked her hair, and his pounding heart began to slow at last.
“It’s all right,” he whispered to her, though his voice was thick and cracked, and the firelight burst in starry blurs through the moisture in his eyes. “We won’t forget. Not Jem, not me. No matter what. We won’t forget.”
He could see his mother’s face, shining clear among the stars.
Clever lad, she said, and smiled.
THE SNOW BEGAN TO MELT. I was torn between pleasure at the thawing of the world and the throb of spring in the ground—and disturbance at the loss of the frozen barrier that shielded us, however temporarily, from the world outside.
Jamie had not changed his mind. He spent an evening in composing a carefully worded letter to Milford Lyon. He was now ready, he wrote, to contemplate the sale of his goods—for which, read illegal whisky—as Mr. Lyon had suggested, and was pleased to say that a substantial quantity was now available. He was, however, concerned lest his goods suffer some misfortune in delivery—i.e., interception by customs authorities or pilferage en route—and wished some assurance that his goods would be handled by a gentleman of known ability in such matters—in other words, a smuggler who knew his way up and down the coast.
He had received assurances from his good friend Mr. Priestly of Edenton (whom he did not, of course, know from a hole in the ground), he wrote, and from Mr. Samuel Cornell, with whom he had had the honor to serve upon the Governor’s Council of War, that one Stephen Bonnet was by far the most able in such endeavors, with a reputation for ability unsurpassed by others. If Mr. Lyon would arrange a meeting with Mr. Bonnet, so that Jamie might form his own impressions and assure himself of the safety of the arrangement contemplated, why then . . .
“Do you think he’ll do it?” I asked.
“If he knows Stephen Bonnet or can find him, aye, he will.” Jamie pressed his father’s cabochon ring into the wax seal. “Priestly and Cornell are names to conjure with, to be sure.”
“And if he does find Bonnet—”
“Then I will go and meet with him.” He cracked the ring from the hardened wax, leaving a smooth indentation surrounded by the tiny strawberry leaves of the Fraser crest. Constancy, they stood for. In some moods, I was sure this was merely another word for stubbornness.
The letter to Lyon was dispatched with Fergus, and I tried to dismiss it from my mind. It was still winter; with only a little luck, Bonnet’s ship might meet with a storm and sink, saving us all a good deal of trouble.
Still, the matter lurked in the recesses of my mind, and when I returned to the house after attending a childbirth to find a pile of letters on the desk in Jamie’s study, my heart leaped into my throat.
There was—thank God!—no answer among them from Milford Lyon. Even had such an answer come, though, it would have been promptly eclipsed and forgotten—for among the sheaf of correspondence was a letter bearing Jamie’s name, written in his sister’s strong black hand.
I could scarcely keep myself from tearing it open at once—and if it were some searing reproach, sticking it directly into the fire before Jamie could see it. Honor prevailed, though, and I managed to contain myself until Jamie arrived from an errand to Salem, plastered with mud from the impassable trails. Informed of the waiting missive, he splashed hands and face hastily with water, and came to the study, carefully shutting the door before breaking the seal of the letter.
His face showed nothing, but I saw him take a deep breath before opening it, as though bracing for the worst. I moved quietly round behind him, and put a hand on his shoulder in encouragement.
Jenny Fraser Murray wrote in a well-schooled hand, the letters round and graceful, the lines straight and easily readable on the page.
September 16, 1771
Well. Having taken up my pen and written the single word above, I have now sat here staring at it ’til the candle has burned almost an inch, and me having not one thought what I shall say. It would be a wicked waste of good beeswax to continue so, and yet if I were to put the candle out and go to bed, I should have spoilt a sheet of paper to no purpose—so I see I must go on, in the name of thrift.
I could berate you. That would occupy some space upon the page, and preserve what my husband is pleased to compliment as the most foul and hideous curses he has been privileged to hear in a long life. That seems thrifty, as I was at great pains in the composition of them at the time, and should not like to see the effort wasted. Still, I think I have not so much paper as would contain them all.
I think also that perhaps, after all, I do not wish to rail or condemn you, for you might take this as a just punishment, and so ease your conscience in perceived expiation, so that you leave off your chastising of yourself. That is too simple a penance; I would that if you have wove a hairshirt for yourself, you wear it still, and may it chafe your soul as the loss of my son chafes mine.
In spite of this, I suppose that I am writing to forgive you—I had some purpose in taking up my pen, I know, and while forgiveness seems a doubtful enterprise to me at present, I expect the notion will grow more comfortable with practice.
Jamie’s brows rose nearly to his hairline at this, but he continued to read aloud with fascination.
You will be curious to know what has led me to this action, I suppose, so I will tell you.
I rode to visit Maggie early Monday last; she has a new babe, so you are once more an uncle; a bonnie wee lassie called Angelica, which is a foolish name, I think, but she is very fair and born with a strawberry mark on her chest, which is a charm for good. I left them in the evening, and had made some way towards home when my mule chanced to step into a mole’s hole and fell. Both mule and I rose up somewhat lamed from this accident, and it was clear that I could not ride the creature nor yet make shift to travel far by foot myself.
I found myself on the road Auldearn just over the hill from Balriggan. I should not normally seek the society of Laoghaire MacKenzie—for she has resumed that name, I having made plain in the district my dislike of her use of “Fraser,” she having no proper claim to that style—but it was the only place where I might obtain food and shelter, for night was coming on, with the threat of rain.
So I unsaddled the mule and left him to find his supper by the road, while I limped off in search of mine.
I came down behind the house, past the kailyard, and so came upon the arbor that you built. The vines are well grown on it now, so I could see nothing, but I could hear that there were folk inside, for I heard voices.
The rain had begun by then. It was not but a smizzle, yet the patter on the leaves must have drowned my voice, for no one answered when I called. I came closer—creeping like a spavined snail, to be sure, for I was gromished from the fall and my right ankle gruppit—and was just about to call once more, when I heard sounds of a rare hochmagandy from inside the arbor.
“Hochmagandy?” I glanced at Jamie, brows raised in question.
“Fornication,” he said tersely.
“Oh,” I said, and moved to look over his shoulder at the letter.
I stood still, of course, thinking what was best to do. I could hear that it was Laoghaire shedding her shanks, but I had no hint who her partner might be. My ankle was blown up like a bladder, so I could not walk much farther, and so I was obliged to stand about in the wet, listening to all this inhonesté.
I should have known, had she been courted by a man of the district, and I had heard nothing of her paying heed to any—though several have tried; she has Balriggan, after all, and lives like a laird on the money you pay
I was filled with outrage at the hearing, but somewhat more filled with amazement to discover the cause. That being a sense of fury on your behalf—irrational as such fury might be, in the circumstances. Still, having discovered such an emotion springing full-blown in my breast. I was reluctantly compelled to the realization that my feelings for you must not in fact have perished altogether.