“Do ye want her, Sassenach?” he asked softly. His face was a pale oval, blurred by the mist of his breath.
“Who?” I asked, startled. He gave a small grunt of amusement.
“The child. Who else?”
Who else, indeed.
“Do I want her—to keep her, you mean?” I asked cautiously. “Adopt her?” The notion hadn’t crossed my mind consciously, but must have been lurking somewhere in my subconscious, for I was not startled at his question, and at the speaking, the idea sprang into full flower.
My br**sts had been tender since the morning, feeling full and engorged, and I felt the demanding tug of the little girl’s mouth in memory. I could not feed the baby myself—but Brianna could, or Marsali. Or she could live on cow’s milk, goat’s milk.
I realized suddenly that I had unconsciously cupped one breast, and was gently massaging it. I stopped at once, but Jamie had seen it; he moved closer and put an arm around me. I leaned my head against him, the rough weave of his hunting shirt cold against my cheek.
“Do you want her?” I asked. I wasn’t sure whether I was hopeful of his answer, or fearful of it. The answer was a slight shrug.
“It’s a big house, Sassenach,” he said. “Big enough.”
“Hmm,” I said. Not a resounding declaration—and yet I knew it was commitment, no matter how casually expressed. He had acquired Fergus in a Paris brothel, on the basis of three minutes’ acquaintance, as a hired pickpocket. If he took this child, he would treat her as a daughter. Love her? No one could guarantee love—not he . . . and not I.
He had picked up my dubious tone of voice.
“I saw ye with the wean, Sassenach, riding. Ye’ve a great tenderness about ye always—but when I saw ye so, wi’ the bairn tumbling about beneath your cloak, it—I remembered, how it was, how ye looked, when ye carried Faith.”
I caught my breath. To hear him speak the name of our first daughter like that, so matter-of-factly, was startling. We spoke of her seldom; her death was so long in the past that sometimes it seemed unreal, and yet the wound of her loss had scarred both of us badly.
Faith herself was not unreal at all, though.
She was near me, whenever I touched a baby. And this child, this nameless orphan, so small and frail, with skin so translucent that the blue threads of her veins showed clear beneath—yes, the echoes of Faith were strong. Still, she wasn’t my child. Though she could be; that was what Jamie was saying.
Was she perhaps a gift to us? Or at least our responsibility?
“Do you think we ought to take her?” I asked cautiously. “I mean—what might happen to her if we don’t?”
Jamie snorted faintly, dropping his arm, and leaned back against the wall of the house. He wiped his nose, and tilted his head toward the faint rumble of voices that came through the chinked logs.
“She’d be well cared for, Sassenach. She’s in the way of being an heiress, ken.”
That aspect of the matter hadn’t occurred to me at all.
“Are you sure?” I said dubiously. “I mean, the Beardsleys are both gone, but as she’s illegitimate—”
He shook his head, interrupting me.
“Nay, she’s legitimate.”
“But she can’t be. No one realizes it yet except you and me, but her father—”
“Her father was Aaron Beardsley, so far as the law is concerned,” he informed me. “By English law, a child born in wedlock is the legal child—and heir—of the husband—even if it’s known for a fact that the mother committed adultery. And yon woman did say that Beardsley married her, no?”
It struck me that he was remarkably positive about this particular provision of English law. It also struck me—in time, thank God, before I said anything—exactly why he was positive.
William. His son, conceived in England, and so far as anyone in England knew—with the exception of Lord John Grey—presumably the ninth Earl of Ellesmere. Evidently, he legally was the ninth Earl, according to what Jamie was telling me, whether the eighth Earl had been his father or not. The law really was an ass, I thought.
“I see,” I said slowly. “So little Nameless will inherit all Beardsley’s property, even after they discover that he can’t have been her father. That’s . . . reassuring.”
His eyes met mine for a moment, then dropped.
“Aye,” he said quietly. “Reassuring.” There might have been a hint of bitterness in his voice, but if there was, it vanished without trace as he coughed and cleared his throat.
“So ye see,” he went on, matter-of-factly, “she’s in no danger of neglect. An Orphan Court would give Beardsley’s property—goats and all”—he added, with a faint grin—“to whomever is her guardian, to be used for her welfare.”
“And her guardians’,” I said, suddenly recalling the look Richard Brown had exchanged with his brother, when telling his wife the child would be “well cared for.” I rubbed my nose, which had gone numb at the tip.
“So the Browns would take her willingly, then.”
“Oh, aye,” he agreed. “They kent Beardsley; they’ll ken well enough how valuable she is. It would be a delicate matter to get her away from them, in fact—but if ye want the child, Sassenach, then ye’ll have her. I promise ye that.”
The whole discussion was giving me a very queer feeling. Something almost like panic, as though I were being pushed by some unseen hand toward the edge of a precipice. Whether that was a dangerous cliff or merely a foothold for a larger view remained to be seen.
I saw in memory the gentle curve of the baby’s skull, and the tissue-paper ears, small and perfect as shells, their soft pink whorls fading into an otherworldly tinge of blue.
To give myself a little time to organize my thoughts, I asked, “What did you mean, it would be a delicate matter to get her away from the Browns? They’ve no claim on her, have they?”
He shook his head.
“Nay, but none of them shot her father, either.”
“What—oh.” That was a potential trap that I hadn’t seen; the possibility that Jamie might be accused of killing Beardsley in order to get his hands on the trader’s farm and goods, by then adopting the orphan. I swallowed, the back of my throat tasting faintly of bile.
“But no one knows how Aaron Beardsley died, except us,” I pointed out. Jamie had told them only that the trader had had an apoplexy and died, leaving out his own role as the angel of deliverance.
“Us and Mrs. Beardsley,” he said, a faint tone of irony in his voice. “And if she should come back, and accuse me of murdering her husband? It would be hard to deny, and I’d taken the child.”
I forbore from asking why she might do such a thing; in light of what she had already done, it was clear enough that Fanny Beardsley might do anything.
“She won’t come back,” I said. Whatever my own uncertainties about the rest of it, I was sure that in this respect at least, I spoke the truth. Wherever Fanny Beardsley had gone—or why—I was sure she had gone for good.
“Even if she did,” I went on, pushing aside my vision of snow drifting through an empty wood, and a wrapped bundle lying by the burned-out fire, “I was there. I could say what happened.”
“If they’d let ye,” Jamie agreed. “Which they wouldna. You’re a marrit woman, Sassenach; ye couldna testify in a court, even if ye weren’t my own wife.”
That brought me up short. Living as we did in the wilderness, I seldom encountered the more outrageous legal injustices of the times in a personal way, but I was aware of some of them. He was right. In fact, as a married woman, I had no legal rights at all. Ironically enough, Fanny Beardsley did, being now a widow. She could testify in a court of law—if she wished.
“Well, bloody hell!” I said, with feeling. Jamie laughed, though quietly, then coughed.
I snorted, with a satisfactory explosion of white vapor. I wished momentarily that I was a dragon; it would have been extremely enjoyable to huff flame and brimstone on a number of people, starting with Fanny Beardsley. Instead, I sighed, my harmless white breath vanishing in the dimness of the lean-to.
“I see what you mean by ‘delicate,’ then,” I said.
“Aye—but not impossible.” He cupped a large, cold hand along my cheek, turning my face up to his. His eyes searched my own, dark and intent.
“If ye want the child, Claire, I will take her, and manage whatever comes.”
If I wanted her. I could feel the soft weight of the child, sleeping on my breast. I had forgotten the intoxication of motherhood for years; pushed aside the memory of the feelings of exaltation, exhaustion, panic, delight. Having Germain and Jemmy and Joan nearby, though, had reminded me vividly.
“One last question,” I said. I took his hand and brought it down, fingers linked with mine. “The baby’s father wasn’t white. What might that mean to her?”
I knew what it would have meant in Boston of the 1960s, but this was a very different place, and while in some ways society here was more rigid and less officially enlightened than the time I had come from, in others it was oddly much more tolerant.
Jamie considered carefully, the stiff fingers of his right hand tapping out a silent rhythm of contemplation on the head of a barrel of salt pork.
“I think it will be all right,” he said at last. “There’s no question of her being taken into slavery. Even if it could be proved that her father was a slave—and there’s no proof at all—a child takes the mother’s status. A child born to a free woman is free; a child born to a slave woman is a slave. And whatever yon dreadful woman might be, she wasna a slave.”
“Not in name, at least,” I said, thinking of the marks on the doorpost. “But beyond the question of slavery . . . ?”
He sighed and straightened.
“I think not,” he said. “Not here. In Charleston, aye, it would likely matter; at least if she were in society. But in the backcountry?”
He shrugged. True enough; so close as we were to the Treaty Line, there were any number of mixed-breed children. It was in no way unusual for settlers to take wives among the Cherokee. It was a good deal rarer to see children born of a black and white liaison in the backcountry, but they were plentiful in the coastal areas. Most of them slaves—but there, nonetheless.
And wee Miss Beardsley would not be “in society,” at least, not if we left her with the Browns. Here, her potential wealth would matter a great deal more than the color of her skin. With us, it might be different, for Jamie was—and always would be, despite his income or lack of it—a gentleman.
“That wasn’t the last question, after all,” I said. I laid a hand over his, cold on my cheek. “The last one is—why are you suggesting the notion?”
“Ah. Well, I only thought . . .” He dropped his hand, and looked away. “What ye said when we came home from the Gathering. That ye could have chosen the safety of barrenness—but did not, for my sake. I thought—” He stopped again, and rubbed the knuckle of his free hand hard along the bridge of his nose. He took a deep breath and tried again.