But if a human agency had been responsible for Fanny Beardsley’s disappearance—why had they left the child?
Or, perhaps, brought it back?
I sniffed deeply to clear my nose, then turned my head, breathing in and out, testing the air from different quarters. Birth is a messy business, and I was thoroughly familiar with the ripe scents of it. The child in my arms smelled strongly of such things, but I could detect no trace at all of blood or birth waters on the chilly wind. Goat dung, horse manure, cut hay, the bitter smell of wood ash, and a good whiff of camphorated goose grease from Jamie’s clothes—but nothing else.
“Right, then,” I said aloud, gently jiggling my burden, who was growing restless. “She went away from the fire to give birth. Either she went by herself—or someone made her go. But if someone took her and saw that she was about to deliver, why would they have bothered bringing you back? Surely they’d either have kept you, killed you, or simply left you to die. Oh—sorry. Didn’t mean to upset you. Shh, darling. Hush, hush.”
The baby, beginning to thaw from its stupor, had had time to consider what else was lacking in its world. It had relinquished my breast in frustration, and was wriggling and wailing with encouraging strength by the time Jamie returned with a steaming cup of goat’s milk and a moderately clean handkerchief. Twisting this into a makeshift teat, he dipped it in the milk and carefully inserted the dripping cloth into the open maw. The mewling ceased at once, and we both sighed with relief as the noise stopped.
“Ah, that’s better, is it? Seas, a bhalaich, seas,” Jamie was murmuring to the child, dipping more milk. I peered down at the tiny face, still pale and waxy with vernix, but no longer chalky, as it suckled with deep concentration.
“How could she have left it?” I wondered aloud. “And why?”
That was the best argument for kidnapping; what else could have made a new mother abandon her child? To say nothing of making off on foot into a darkened wood immediately after giving birth, heavy-footed and sore, her own flesh still torn and oozing . . . I grimaced at the thought, my womb tightening in sympathy.
Jamie shook his head, his eyes still intent on his task.
“She had some reason, but Christ and the saints only ken what it is. She didna hate the child, though—she might have left it in the wood, and us none the wiser.”
That was true; she—or someone—had wrapped the baby carefully, and left it as close to the fire as she could. She wished it to survive, then—but without her.
“You think she left willingly, then?”
He nodded, glancing at me.
“We’re no far from the Treaty Line here. It could be Indians—but if it was, if someone took her, why should they not capture us as well? Or kill us all?” he asked logically. “And Indians would have taken the horses. Nay, I think she went on her own. But as to why . . .” He shook his head, and dipped the handkerchief again.
The snow was falling faster now, still a dry, light snow, but beginning to stick in random patches. We should leave soon, I thought, before the storm grew worse. It seemed somehow wrong, though, simply to go, with no attempt to determine the fate of Fanny Beardsley.
The whole situation seemed unreal. It was as though the woman had suddenly vanished through some sorcery, leaving this small substitute in exchange. It reminded me bizarrely of the Scottish tales of changelings; fairy offspring left in the place of human babies. I couldn’t fathom what the fairies could possibly want with Fanny Beardsley, though.
I knew it was futile, but turned slowly round once more, surveying our surroundings. Nothing. The clay bank loomed over us, fringed with dry, snow-dusted grass. The trickle of a tiny stream ran past a little distance away, and the trees rustled and sighed in the wind. There was no mark of hoof or foot on the layer of damp, spongy needles, and no hint of any trail. The woods were not at all silent, what with the wind, but dark and deep, all right.
“And miles to go before we sleep,” I remarked, turning back to Jamie with a sigh.
“Eh? Ah, no, it’s no more than an hour’s ride to Brownsville,” he assured me. “Or maybe two,” he amended, glancing up at the white-muslin sky, from which the snow was falling faster. “I ken where we are, now it’s light.”
He coughed again, a sudden spasm racking his body, then straightened, and handed me the cup and dummy.
“Here, Sassenach. Feed the poor were sgaogan while I tend the beasts, aye?”
Sgaogan. A changeling. So the air of supernatural strangeness about the whole affair had struck him, too. Well, the woman had claimed to see ghosts; perhaps one of them had come for her? I shivered, and cradled the baby closer.
“Is there any settlement near here, besides Brownsville? Anywhere Mrs. Beardsley might have decided to go?”
Jamie shook his head, a line between his brows. The snow melted where it touched his heated skin, and ran down his face in tiny streams.
“Naught that I ken,” he said. “Is the wean takin’ to the goat’s milk?”
“Like a kid,” I assured him, and laughed. He looked puzzled, but one side of his mouth turned up nonetheless—he wanted humor just now, whether he understood the joke or not.
“That’s what the Americans call—will call—children,” I told him. “Kids.”
The smile broadened across his face.
“Oh, aye? So that’s why Brianna and MacKenzie call wee Jem so, is it? I thought it was only a bit of private fun between them.”
He milked the rest of the goats quickly while I dribbled more nourishment into the child, bringing back a brimming bucket of warm milk for our own breakfast. I should have liked a nice hot cup of tea—my fingers were chilled and numb from dipping the false teat over and over—but the creamy white stuff was delicious, and as much comfort to our chilled and empty stomachs as to the little one’s.
The child had stopped suckling, and had wet itself copiously; a good sign of health, by and large, but rather inconvenient just at the moment, as both its swaddling cloth and the front of my bodice were now soaked.
Jamie rootled hastily through the packs once again, this time in search of diapering and dry clothes. Fortunately, Mrs. Piggy had been carrying the bag in which I kept lengths of linen and wads of cotton lint for cleansing and bandaging. He took a handful of these and the child, while I went about the awkward and drafty business of changing my shift and bodice without removing skirt, petticoat, or cloak.
“P-put on your own cloak,” I said, through chattering teeth. “You’ll die of f-frigging pneumonia.”
He smiled at that, eyes focused on his job, though the tip of his nose glowed redly in contrast to his pale face.
“I’m fine,” he croaked, then cleared his throat with a noise like ripping cloth, impatient. “Fine,” he repeated, more strongly, then stopped, eyes widening in surprise.
“Oh,” he said, more softly. “Look. It’s a wee lassie.”
“Is it?” I dropped to my knees beside him to look.
“Rather plain,” he said, critically surveying the little creature. “A good thing she’ll have a decent dowry.”
“I don’t suppose you were any great beauty when you were born, either,” I said rebukingly. “She hasn’t even been properly cleaned, poor thing. What do you mean about her dowry, though?”
He shrugged, contriving to keep the child covered with a shawl, meanwhile sliding a folded sheet of linen dexterously beneath her miniature bottom.
“Her father’s dead and her mother’s gone. She’s no brothers or sisters to share, and I didna find any will in the house saying that anyone else was to have Beardsley’s property. There’s a decent farm left, though, and a good bit in trade goods there—to say nothing of the goats.” He glanced at Hiram and his family, and smiled. “So they’ll all be hers, I expect.”
“I suppose so,” I said slowly. “So she’ll be a rather well-to-do little girl, won’t she?”
“Aye, and she’s just shit herself. Could ye not have done that before I’d put ye on a fresh clout?” he demanded of the child. Unfazed by the scolding, the little girl blinked sleepily at him and gave a soft belch.
“Oh, well,” he said, resigned. He shifted himself to better shelter her from the wind, lifted the coverings briefly, and wiped a smear of blackish slime deftly off the budlike privates.
The child seemed healthy, though rather undersized; she was no bigger than a large doll, her stomach bulging slightly with milk. That was the immediate difficulty; small as she was, and with no body fat for insulation, she would die of hypothermia within a very short time, unless we could keep her warm as well as fed.
“Don’t let her get chilled.” I put my hands in my armpits to warm them, in preparation for picking up the child.
“Dinna fash yourself, Sassenach. I must just wipe her wee bum and then—” He stopped, frowning.
“What’s this, Sassenach? Is she damaged, d’ye think? Perhaps yon silly woman dropped her?”
I leaned close to look. He held the baby’s feet up in one hand, a wad of soiled cotton lint in the other. Just above the tiny buttocks was a dark bluish discoloration, rather like a bruise.
It wasn’t a bruise. It was, though, an explanation of sorts.
“She isn’t hurt,” I assured him, pulling another of Mrs. Beardsley’s discarded shawls up to shelter her daughter’s bald head. “It’s a Mongol spot.”
“It means the child is black,” I explained. “African, I mean, or partly so.” Jamie blinked, startled, then bent to peer into the shawl, frowning.
“No, she isn’t. She’s as pale as ye are yourself, Sassenach.”
That was quite true; the child was so white as to seem devoid of blood.
“Black children don’t usually look black at birth,” I explained to him. “In fact, they’re often quite pale. The pigmentation of the skin begins to develop some weeks later. But they’re often born with this faint discoloration of the skin at the base of the spine—it’s called a Mongol spot.”
He rubbed a hand over his face, blinking away snowflakes that tried to settle on his lashes.
“I see,” he said slowly. “Aye, well, that explains a bit, does it not?”
It did. The late Mr. Beardsley, whatever else he might have been, had assuredly not been black. The child’s father had been. And Fanny Beardsley, knowing—or fearing—that the child she was about to bear would reveal her as an adulteress, had thought it better to abandon the child and flee before the truth was revealed. I wondered whether the mysterious father had had anything to do with what had happened to Mr. Beardsley, for that matter.
“Did she know for sure that the father was a Negro, I wonder?” Jamie touched the small underlip, now showing a tinge of pink, gently with one finger. “Or did she never see the child at all? For after all, she must have given birth in the dark. If she had seen it looked white, perhaps she would ha’ chosen to brazen it out.”