Voyager

Author: P Hana

Page 120

   

I saw the normal run of crushed fingers, burnt hands, skin infections, abscessed teeth, and digestive ills, but in a crew of only thirty-two men, there was seldom enough work to keep me busy beyond the hour of sick call each morning.

In consequence, both Jamie and I had a great deal of free time. And, as the Artemis drew gradually south into the great gyre of the Atlantic, we began to spend most of this time with each other.

For the first time since my return to Edinburgh, there was time to talk; to relearn all the half-forgotten things we knew of each other, to find out the new facets that experience had polished, and simply to take pleasure in each other’s presence, without the distractions of danger and daily life.

We strolled the deck constantly, up and down, marking off miles as we conversed of everything and nothing, pointing out to each other the phenomena of a sea voyage; the spectacular sunrises and sunsets, schools of strange green and silver fish, enormous islands of floating seaweed, harboring thousands of tiny crabs and jellyfish, the sleek dolphins that appeared for several days in a row, swimming parallel with the ship, leaping out of the water now and then, as though to get a look at the curious creatures above the water.

The moon rose huge and fast and golden, a great glowing disc that slid upward, out of the water and into the sky like a phoenix rising. The water was dark now, and the dolphins invisible, but I thought somehow that they were still there, keeping pace with the ship on her flight through the dark.

It was a scene breathtaking enough even for the sailors, who had seen it a thousand times, to stop and sigh with pleasure at the sight, as the huge orb rose to hang just over the edge of the world, seeming almost near enough to touch.

Jamie and I stood close together by the rail, admiring it. It seemed so close that we could make out with ease the dark spots and shadows on its surface.

“It seems so close ye could speak to the Man in the Moon,” he said, smiling, and waved a hand in greeting to the dreaming golden face above.

“‘The weeping Pleiads wester / and the moon is under seas,’” I quoted. “And look, it is, down there, too.” I pointed over the rail, to where the trail of moonlight deepened, glowing in the water as though a twin of the moon itself were sunken there.

“When I left,” I said, “men were getting ready to fly to the moon. I wonder whether they’ll make it.”

“Do the flying machines go so high, then?” Jamie asked. He squinted at the moon. “I should say it’s a great way, for all it looks so close just now. I read a book by an astronomer—he said it was perhaps three hundred leagues from the earth to the moon. Is he wrong, then, or is it only that the—airplanes, was it?—will fly so far?”

“It takes a special kind, called a rocket,” I said. “Actually, it’s a lot farther than that to the moon, and once you get far away from the earth, there’s no air to breathe in space. They’ll have to carry air with them on the voyage, like food and water. They put it in sort of canisters.”

“Really?” He gazed up, face full of light and wonder. “What will it look like there, I wonder?”

“I know that,” I said. “I’ve seen pictures. It’s rocky, and barren, with no life at all—but very beautiful, with cliffs and mountains and craters—you can see the craters from here; the dark spots.” I nodded toward the smiling moon, then smiled at Jamie myself. “It’s not unlike Scotland—except that it isn’t green.”

He laughed, then evidently reminded by the word “pictures,” reached into his coat and drew out the little packet of photographs. He was cautious about them, never taking them out where they might be seen by anyone, even Fergus, but we were alone back here, with little chance of interruption.

The moon was bright enough to see Brianna’s face, glowing and mutable, as he thumbed slowly through the pictures. The edges were becoming frayed, I saw.

“Will she walk about on the moon, d’ye think?” he asked softly, pausing at a shot of Bree looking out a window, secretly dreaming, unaware of being photographed. He glanced up again at the orb above us, and I realized that for him, a voyage to the moon seemed very little more difficult or farfetched than the one in which we were engaged. The moon, after all, was only another distant, unknown place.

“I don’t know,” I said, smiling a bit.

He thumbed through the pictures slowly, absorbed as he always was by the sight of his daughter’s face, so like his own. I watched him quietly, sharing his silent joy at this promise of our immortality.

I thought briefly of that stone in Scotland, engraved with his name, and took comfort from its distance. Whenever our parting might come, chances were it would not be soon. And even when and where it did—Brianna would still be left of us.

More of Housman’s lines drifted through my head—Halt by the headstone naming / The heart no longer stirred, / And say the lad that loved you / Was one that kept his word.

I drew close to him, feeling the heat of his body through coat and shirt, and rested my head against his arm as he turned slowly through the small stack of photographs.

“She is beautiful,” he murmured, as he did every time he saw the pictures. “And clever, too, did ye not say?”

“Just like her father,” I told him, and felt him chuckle softly.

I felt him stiffen slightly as he turned one picture over, and lifted my head to see which one he was looking at. It was one taken at the beach, when Brianna was about sixteen. It showed her standing thigh-deep in the surf, hair in a sandy tangle, kicking water at her friend, a boy named Rodney, who was backing away, laughing too, hands held up against the spray of water.

Jamie frowned slightly, lips pursed.

“That—” he began. “Do they—” He paused and cleared his throat. “I wouldna venture to criticize, Claire,” he said, very carefully, “but do ye not think this is a wee bit…indecent?”

I suppressed an urge to laugh.

“No,” I said, composedly. “That’s really quite a modest bathing suit—for the time.” While the suit in question was a bikini, it was by no means skimpy, rising to at least an inch below Bree’s navel. “I chose this picture because I thought you’d want to er…see as much of her as possible.”

He looked mildly scandalized at this thought, but his eyes returned to the picture, drawn irresistibly. His face softened as he looked at her.

“Aye, well,” he said. “Aye, she’s verra lovely, and I’m glad to know it.” He lifted the picture, studying it carefully. “No, it’s no the thing she’s wearing I meant; most women who bathe outside do it naked, and their skins are no shame to them. It’s only—this lad. Surely she shouldna be standing almost naked before a man?” He scowled at the hapless Rodney, and I bit my lip at the thought of the scrawny little boy, whom I knew very well, as a masculine threat to maidenly purity.

“Well,” I said, drawing a deep breath. We were on slightly delicate ground here. “No. I mean, boys and girls do play together—like that. You know people dress differently then; I’ve told you. No one’s really covered up a great deal except when the weather’s cold.”

“Mmphm,” he said. “Aye, ye’ve told me.” He managed to convey the distinct impression that on the basis of what I’d told him, he was not impressed with the moral conditions under which his daughter was living.

He scowled at the picture again, and I thought it was fortunate that neither Bree nor Rodney was present. I had seen Jamie as lover, husband, brother, uncle, laird, and warrior, but never before in his guise as a ferocious Scottish father. He was quite formidable.

For the first time, I thought that perhaps it was not altogether a bad thing that he wasn’t able to oversee Bree’s life personally; he would have frightened the living daylights out of any lad bold enough to try to court her.

Jamie blinked at the picture once or twice, then took a deep breath, and I could feel him brace himself to ask.

“D’ye think she is—a virgin?” The halt in his voice was barely perceptible, but I caught it.

“Of course she is,” I said firmly. I thought it very likely, in fact, but this wasn’t a situation in which to admit the possibility of doubt. There were things I could explain to Jamie about my own time, but the idea of sexual freedom wasn’t one of them.

“Oh.” The relief in his voice was inexpressible, and I bit my lip to keep from laughing. “Aye, well, I was sure of it, only I—that is—” He stopped and swallowed.

“Bree’s a very good girl,” I said. I squeezed his arm lightly. “Frank and I may not have got on so well together, but we were both good parents to her, if I do say so.”

“Aye, I know ye were. I didna mean to say otherwise.” He had the grace to look abashed, and tucked the beach picture carefully back into the packet. He put the pictures back into his pocket, patting them to be sure they were safe.

He stood looking up at the moon, then, his brows drew together in a slight frown. The sea wind lifted strands of his hair, tugging them loose from the ribbon that bound it, and he brushed them back absentmindedly. Clearly there was still something on his mind.

“Do ye think,” he began slowly, not looking at me. “Do ye think that it was quite wise to come to me now, Claire? Not that I dinna want ye,” he added hastily, feeling me stiffen beside him. He caught my hand, preventing my turning away.

“No, I didna mean that at all! Christ, I do want ye!” He drew me closer, pressing my hand in his against his heart. “I want ye so badly that sometimes I think my heart will burst wi’ the joy of having ye,” he added more softly. “It’s only—Brianna’s alone now. Frank is gone, and you. She has no husband to protect her, no men of her family to see her safely wed. Will she not have need of ye awhile yet? Should ye no have waited a bit, I mean?”

I paused before answering, trying to get my own feelings under control.

“I don’t know,” I said at last; my voice quivered, in spite of my struggle to control it. “Look—things aren’t the same then.”

“I know that!”

“You don’t!” I pulled my hand loose, and glared at him. “You don’t know, Jamie, and there isn’t any way for me to tell you, because you won’t believe me. But Bree’s a grown woman; she’ll marry when and as she likes, not when someone arranges it for her. She doesn’t need to marry, for that matter. She’s having a good education; she can earn her own living—women do that. She won’t have to have a man to protect her—”

“And if there’s no need for a man to protect a woman, and care for her, then I think it will be a verra poor time!” He glared back at me.

I drew a deep breath, trying to be calm.

“I didn’t say there’s no need for it.” I placed a hand on his shoulder, and spoke in a softer tone. “I said, she can choose. She needn’t take a man out of necessity; she can take one for love.”

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