“Are the geese for our supper tonight, then?” he asked, squatting to poke through the discarded pile of mud-caked garments he’d shucked earlier. He might have a clean shirt somewhere, but with the Chisholms in his cabin, and Bree and Jem temporarily lodged here in the Wemysses’ room, he had no idea where his own things were. No sense to put on something clean only to go and muck out a byre and feed horses, anyway. He’d shave and change before supper.
“Uh-huh. Mrs. Bug has half a hog barbecuing in a pit outside for tomorrow’s Christmas dinner. I shot the geese yesterday, though, and she wanted to use them fresh. We were hoping you guys would be home in time.”
He glanced at her, picking up the same undertone in her voice.
“Ye don’t care for goose?” he asked. She looked down at him, with an odd expression.
“I’ve never eaten one,” she answered. “Roger?”
“I was just wondering. I wanted to ask if you knew . . .”
“If I know what?”
He was moving slowly, still wrapped in a pleasant fog of exhaustion and lovemaking. She had put her gown on, brushed her hair, and put it up neatly in a thick coil on her neck, all in the time it had taken him to disentangle his stockings and breeches. He shook the breeks absentmindedly, sending a shower of dried mud fragments pattering over the floor.
“Don’t do that! What’s the matter with you?” Flushed with sudden annoyance, she snatched the breeks away from him. She thrust open the shutters and leaned out, flapping the garment violently over the sill. She jerked the shaken breeks back in and threw them in his general direction; he dived to catch them.
“Hey. What’s the matter with you?”
“Matter? You shower dirt all over the floor and you think there’s something wrong with me?”
“Sorry. I didn’t think—”
She made a noise deep in her throat. It wasn’t very loud, but it was threatening. Obeying a deep-seated masculine reflex, he shoved a leg into his breeches. Whatever might be happening, he’d rather meet it with his trousers on. He jerked them up, talking fast.
“Look, I’m sorry I didn’t think of it being Christmas. It was—there were important things to deal with; I lost track. I’ll make it up to ye. Perhaps when we go to Cross Creek for your aunt’s wedding. I could—”
“The hell with Christmas!”
“What?” He stopped, breeks half-buttoned. It was winter dusk, and dark in the room, but even by candlelight, he could see the color rising in her face.
“The hell with Christmas, the hell with Cross Creek—and the f**king hell with you, too!” She punctuated this last with a wooden soap dish from the washstand, which whizzed past his left ear and smacked into the wall behind him.
“Now just a f**king minute!”
“Don’t you use language like that to me!”
“You and your ‘important things’!” Her hand tightened on the big china ewer and he tensed, ready to duck, but she thought better of it and her hand relaxed.
“I’ve spent the last month here, up to my eyeballs in laundry and baby shit and screeching women and horrible children while you’re out doing ‘important things’ and you come marching in here covered in mud and tromp all over the clean floors without even noticing they were clean in the first place! Do you have any idea what a pain it is to scrub pine floors on your hands and knees? With lye soap!” She waved her hands at him in accusation, but too quickly for him to see whether they were covered with gaping sores, rotted off at the wrist, or merely reddened.
“. . . And you don’t even want to look at your son or hear anything about him—he’s learned to crawl, and I wanted to show you, but all you wanted was to go to bed, and you didn’t even bother to shave first . . .”
Roger felt as though he’d walked into the blades of a large, rapidly whirling fan. He scratched at his short beard, feeling guilty.
“I . . . ah . . . thought you wanted to—”
“I did!” She stamped her foot, raising a small cloud of dust from the disintegrated mud. “That hasn’t got anything to do with it!”
“All right.” He bent to get his shirt, keeping one eye warily on her. “So—you’re mad because I didn’t notice you’d washed the floor, is that it?”
“No,” he repeated. He took a deep breath and tried again. “So, it is that I forgot it’s Christmas?”
“You’re angry that I wanted to make love to you, even though you wanted to do it, too?”
“NO! Would you just shut up?”
Roger was strongly tempted to accede to this request, but a dogged urge to get to the bottom of things made him push on.
“But I don’t understand why—”
“I know you don’t! That’s the problem!”
She spun on her bare heel and stomped over to the chest that stood by the window. She flung back the lid with a bang, and began rummaging, with a series of small snorts and growls.
He opened his mouth, shut it again, and jerked the dirty shirt on over his head. He felt simultaneously irritated and guilty, a bad combination. He finished dressing in an atmosphere of charged silence, considering—and rejecting—possible remarks and questions, all of which seemed likely to inflame the situation further.
She had found her stockings, yanked them on, and gartered them with small savage movements, then thrust her feet into a pair of battered clogs. Now she stood at the open window, drawing deep breaths of air as though she were about to perform a set of RAF exercises.
His inclination was to escape while she wasn’t looking, but he couldn’t bring himself simply to leave, with something wrong—whatever in God’s name it was—between them. He could still feel the sense of closeness that they had shared, less than a quarter of an hour before, and couldn’t bring himself to believe that it had simply evaporated into thin air.
He walked up behind her, slowly, and put his hands on her shoulders. She didn’t whirl round and try either to stamp on his foot or to knee him in the stones, so he took the risk of kissing her lightly on the back of the neck.
“You were going to ask me something about geese.”
She took a deep breath and let it out in a sigh, relaxing just a little against him. Her anger seemed to have vanished as quickly as it had appeared, leaving him baffled but grateful. He put his arms round her waist, and pulled her back against him.
“Yesterday,” she said, “Mrs. Aberfeldy burnt the biscuits for breakfast.”
“Mrs. Bug accused her of being too taken up with her daughter’s hair ribbons to pay attention to what she was doing. And what was she doing—Mrs. Bug said—putting blueberries into buttermilk biscuits in the first place?”
“Why shouldn’t one put blueberries into buttermilk biscuits?”
“I have no idea. But Mrs. Bug doesn’t think you should. And then Billy MacLeod fell down the stairs, and his mother was nowhere to be found—she went to the privy and got stuck—and—”
“She what?” Mrs. MacLeod was short and rather stout, but had a well-defined rear aspect, with an arse like two cannonballs in a sack. It was all too easy to envision such an accident befalling her, and Roger felt laughter gurgle up through his chest. He tried manfully to stifle it, but it emerged through his nose in a painful snort.
“We shouldn’t laugh. She had splinters.” Despite this rebuke, Brianna herself was quivering against him, tremors of mirth fracturing her voice.
“Christ. What then?”
“Well, Billy was screaming—he didn’t break anything, but he banged his head pretty hard—and Mrs. Bug shot out of the kitchen with her broom, hollering because she thought we were being attacked by Indians, and Mrs. Chisholm went to find Mrs. MacLeod and started yelling from the privy, and . . . well, anyway, the geese came over in the middle of all of it, and Mrs. Bug looked up at the ceiling with her eyes popping, then said ‘Geese!’ so loud that everybody stopped yelling, and she ran into Da’s study and came back with the fowling piece and shoved it at me.”
She had relaxed a little with the telling. She snorted, and settled back against him.
“I was so mad, I just really wanted to kill something. And there were a lot of them—the geese—you could hear them calling all across the sky.”
He had seen the geese, too. Black V-shapes, flexing in the winds of the upper air, arrowing their way through the winter sky. Heard them calling, with a strange feeling of loneliness at the heart, and wished she were beside him there.
Everyone had rushed out to watch; the wild Chisholm children and a couple of the half-wild Chisholm dogs went scampering through the trees with whoops and barks of excitement, to retrieve the fallen birds, while Brianna shot and reloaded, as quickly as she could.
“One of the dogs got one, and Toby tried to wrestle it away, and the dog bit him, and he was running around and around the yard screaming that his finger was bitten off, and there was blood all over him, and nobody could make him stop so we could see whether it was, and Mama wasn’t here, and Mrs. Chisholm was down by the creek with the twins . . .”
She was stiffening again, and he could see the hot blood rising once more, flushing the back of her neck. He tightened his hold on her waist.
“Was his finger bitten off, then?”
She stopped and took a deep breath, then looked round at him over her shoulder, the color fading slightly from her face.
“No. The skin wasn’t even broken; it was goose blood.”
“Well, so. Ye did well, didn’t you? The larder full, not a finger lost—and the house still standing.”
He’d meant it as a joke, and was surprised to feel her heave a deep sigh, a little of the tension going out of her.
“Yes,” she said, and her voice held a note of undeniable satisfaction. “I did. All present and accounted for—and everybody fed. With minimal bloodshed,” she added.
“Well, it’s true what they say about omelettes and eggs, aye?” He laughed and bent to kiss her, then remembered his beard. “Oh—sorry. I’ll go and shave, shall I?”
“No, don’t.” She turned as he released her, and brushed a fingertip across his jaw. “I sort of like it. Besides, you can do that later, can’t you?”
“Aye, I can.” He bent his head and kissed her gently, but thoroughly. Was that it, then? She’d only wanted him to say that she’d done well, left on her own to run the place? He was thinking she deserved it, if so. He’d known she hadn’t been only sitting by the hearth singing cradle songs to Jemmy in his absence—but he hadn’t envisioned the gory details.
The smell of her hair and the musk of her body was all round him, but breathing deep to get more of it, he realized that the room was fragrant with juniper and balsam, too, and the mellow scent of beeswax candles. Not just one; there were three of them, set in candlesticks about the room. Normally, she would have lit a rush dip, saving the valuable candles, but the small room glowed now with soft gold light, and he realized that the bloom of it had lit them through their lovemaking, leaving him with memories of russet and ivory and the gold down that covered her like a lion’s pelt, the shadowed crimson and purple of her secret places, the dark of his skin on the paleness of hers—memories that glowed vivid against white sheets in his mind.