“Come back,” I’d said. He’d smiled at me, smoothing a curl behind my ear.
“Ye ken what I said at Alamance? Well, it’s no today, either, Sassenach. We’ll both be back.”
MRS. CRAWFORD’S ASSEMBLY, held the next evening, boasted the same performers, for the most part, as had Mrs. Dunning’s, but had one novelty; it was there that I smelled myrtle candles for the first time.
“What is that lovely scent?” I asked Mrs. Crawford during the interval, sniffing at the candelabra that decorated her harpsichord. The candles were beeswax, but the scent was something both delicate and spicy—rather like bayberry, but lighter.
“Wax-myrtle,” she replied, gratified. “I don’t use them for the candles themselves, though one can—but it does take such a tremendous quantity of the berries, near eight pound to get only a pound of the wax, imagine! It took my bond-maid a week of picking, and she brought me barely enough as would make a dozen candles. So I rendered the wax, but then I mixed it in with the regular beeswax when I dipped the candles, and I will say I am pleased. It does give such a pleasant aroma, does it not?”
She leaned closer to me, lowering her voice to a confidential whisper.
“Someone said to me that Mrs. Dunning’s home smelt last night as though the cook had scorched the potatoes at supper!”
And so, on the third day, faced with the alternatives of a day spent cooped up with three small children in our cramped lodgings, or a repeat visit to the much-diminished remains of the dead whale, I borrowed several buckets from our landlady, Mrs. Burns, commissioned a picnic basket, and marshalled my troops for a foraging expedition.
Brianna and Marsali consented to the notion with alacrity, if not enthusiasm.
“Anything is better than sitting around worrying,” Brianna said. “Anything!”
“Aye, and anything is better than the stink of filthy clouts and sour milk, too,” Marsali added. She fanned herself with a book, looking pale. “I could do wi’ a bit of air.”
I worried a little about Marsali’s ability to walk so far, given her expanding girth—she was in her seventh month—but she insisted that the exercise would benefit her, and Brianna and I could help to carry Joanie.
As is usual in cases of travel with small children, our departure was somewhat prolonged. Joanie spit up mashed sweet potato down the front of her gown, Jemmy committed a sanitary indiscretion of major proportions, and Germain disappeared during the confusion occasioned by these mishaps. He was discovered, at the conclusion of a half-hour search involving everyone in the street, behind the public livery stable, happily engaged in throwing horse dung at passing carriages and wagons.
Everyone forcibly cleaned, redressed, and—in Germain’s case—threatened with death and dismemberment, we descended the stairs again, to find that the landlord, Mr. Burns, had helpfully dug out an old goat-cart, with which he kindly presented us. The goat, however, was employed in eating nettles in the next-door garden, and declined to be caught. After a quarter of an hour’s heated pursuit, Brianna declared that she would prefer to pull the cart herself, rather than spend any longer playing ring-around-the-rosy with a goat.
“Mrs. Fraser, Mrs. Fraser!” We were halfway down the street, the children, buckets, and picnic basket in the goat-cart, when Mrs. Burns came hurrying out of the inn after us, a jug of small beer in one hand, and an ancient flintlock pistol in the other.
“Snakes,” she explained, handing me the latter. “My Annie says she saw at least a dozen adders, last time she walked that way.”
“Snakes,” I said, accepting the object and its attendant paraphernalia with reluctance. “Quite.”
Given that “adder” could mean anything from a water moccasin to the most harmless grass snake, and also given that Annie Burns had a marked talent for melodrama, I was not unduly concerned. I thought of dropping the gun into the picnic basket, but a glance at Germain and Jemmy, pictures of cherubic innocence, decided me of the unwisdom of leaving even an unloaded firearm anywhere near them. I dropped the pistol into my berry-bucket, instead, and put it over my arm.
The day was overcast and cool, with a light breeze off the ocean. The air was damp, and I thought there was a good chance of rain before long, but for the moment, it was very pleasant out, with the sandy earth packed down sufficiently from earlier rains to make the walking easy.
Following Mrs. Crawford’s directions, we made our way a mile or so down the beach, and found ourselves at the edge of a thick growth of coastal forest, where scanty-needled pines mingled with mangroves and palmetto in a dense, sun-splintered tangle, twined with vines. I closed my eyes and breathed in, nostrils flaring at the intoxicating mixture of scents: mudflats and wet sand, pine resins and sea air, the last faint whiffs of dead whale, and what I had been looking for—the fresh, tangy scent of wax-myrtles.
“That way,” I said, pointing into the tangle of vegetation. The going was too heavy for the cart now, so we left it, allowing the little boys to run wild, chasing tiny crabs and bright birds, as we made our way slowly into the scrubby forest. Marsali carried Joan, who curled up like a dormouse in her mother’s arms and went to sleep, lulled by the sound of ocean and wind.
In spite of the heavy growth, the walking was more pleasant here than on the open beach; the wind-stunted trees were tall enough to give a pleasing sense of secrecy and refuge, and the footing was better, with a thin layer of decaying leaves and needles underfoot.
Jemmy grew tired of walking, and tugged on my skirt, raising both arms to be picked up.
“All right.” I hung a berry-bucket from one wrist, and swung him up, with a crackle and pop of vertebrae; he was a very solid little boy. He twined his sandy feet comfortably round my waist and rested his face on my shoulder with a sigh of relief.
“All very well for you,” I said, gently patting his back. “Who’s going to give Grannie a ride, hey?”
“Grand-da,” he said, and giggled. He lifted his head, looking round. “W’ere Grand-da?”
“Grand-da’s busy,” I told him, taking care to keep my voice light and cheerful. “We’ll see Grand-da and Daddy soon.”
“Yes, so does Mummy,” I murmured. “Here, sweetie. See that? See the little berries? We’re going to pick some, won’t that be fun? No, don’t eat them! Jemmy, I said no, do not put them in your mouth, they’ll make you sick!”
We had found a luxuriant patch of wax-myrtles, and soon spread out, losing sight of each other amid the bushes as we picked, but calling out every few minutes, in order not to lose each other entirely.
I had put Jemmy down again, and was idly contemplating whether there might be any use for the berry-pulp, once the myrtle berries were boiled to render the wax, when I heard the soft crunch of footsteps on the other side of the bush I was picking from.
“Is that you, darling?” I called, thinking it was Brianna. “Perhaps we ought to have our lunch soon; I think it’s maybe coming on to rain.”
“Well, it’s a kind invitation, sure,” said a male voice, sounding amused. “I thank ye, ma’am, but I’ve made a decent breakfast not long since.”
He stepped out from behind the bush, and I stood paralyzed, completely unable to speak. My mind, oddly enough, was not paralyzed in the slightest; my thoughts were running at the speed of light.
If Stephen Bonnet’s here, Jamie and Roger are safe, thank God.
Where are the children?
Where is Bree?
Where’s that gun, goddamnit?
“Who’s that, Grandmere?” Germain, appearing from behind a bush with what appeared to be a dead rat dangling from one hand, approached me warily, blue eyes narrowed at the intruder.
“Germain,” I said in a croak, not taking my eyes off Bonnet. “Go find your mother, and stay with her.”
“Grandmere, is it? And who will his mother be, then?” Bonnet glanced from me to Germain and back, interested. He tilted back the hat he wore, and scratched at the side of his jaw.
“Never mind that,” I said, as firmly as I could. “Germain, go!” I stole a look downward, but the pistol was not in my bucket. There were six buckets, and we had left three on the goat-cart; undoubtedly the gun was in one of those, worse luck.
“Oh, don’t be goin’ just yet, young sir.” Bonnet made a move toward Germain, but the little boy took alarm at the gesture and skittered back, throwing the rat at Bonnet. It hit him in the knee, surprising him and making him hesitate for the split second necessary for Germain to vanish into the myrtles. I could hear his feet chuffing the sand as he ran, and hoped he knew where Marsali was. The last thing we needed was for him to lose himself.
Well, possibly not the very last thing, I amended. The very last thing we needed was for Stephen Bonnet to lay eyes on Jemmy, which he promptly did, when the latter wandered out of the bushes an instant later, his short gown smeared with mud, more mud oozing through the fingers of his clenched fists.
There was no sun, but Jemmy’s hair seemed to blaze with the brilliance of a striking match. Paralysis disappearing in a heartbeat, I grabbed him up, and backed away several steps, knocking over the half-filled bucket of myrtle berries.
Bonnet’s eyes were the pale green of a cat’s, and they brightened now with the intentness of a cat that spots a creeping mouse.
“And who will this sweet manneen be?” he asked, taking a step toward me.
“My son,” I said instantly, and pulled Jem tight against my shoulder, ignoring his struggles. With the natural perversity of small children, he seemed to be fascinated by Bonnet’s Irish lilt, and kept turning his head to stare at the stranger.
“Favors his father, I see.” Drops of sweat glistened in the heavy blond brows. He smoothed first one, then the other, with the tip of his finger, so the sweat ran in trickles down the sides of his face, but the pale green eyes never wavered in their regard. “As does his . . . sister. And is your lovely daughter anyplace nearby, dear one? I should enjoy to renew our acquaintaince—such a charmin’ girl, Brianna.” He smiled.
“No doubt you would,” I said, making no particular effort to disguise the edge in my voice. “No, she isn’t. She’s at home—with her husband.” I leaned heavily on the word husband, hoping that Brianna was near enough to hear me and take warning, but he paid it no mind.
“At home, now. And where do ye call home then, Mum?” He took off the hat and wiped his face with his sleeve.
“Oh . . . in the backcountry. A homestead.” I waved vaguely in the direction I thought roughly west. What was this—social conversation? And yet the choices seemed distinctly limited. I could turn and flee—at which point he would catch me handily, burdened as I was with Jemmy. Or I could stand here until he revealed what he wanted. I didn’t think he was out for a picnic among the myrtles.
“A homestead,” he repeated, a muscle twitching in his cheek. “What business brings ye so far from home, and I might ask?”
“You might not,” I said. “Or rather—you might ask my husband. He’ll be along shortly.”