His face began to relax, just slightly.
“You took me from need,” he said. “When we wed.”
“And I came back for love,” I said. “Do you think I needed you any less, only because I could feed myself?”
The lines of his face eased, and the shoulder under my hand relaxed a bit as he searched my face.
“No,” he said softly. “I dinna think that.”
He put his arm around me and drew me close. I put my arms around his waist and held him, feeling the small flat patch of Brianna’s pictures in his pocket under my cheek.
“I did worry about leaving her,” I whispered, a little later. “She made me go; we were afraid that if I waited longer, I might not be able to find you. But I did worry.”
“I know. I shouldna ha’ said anything.” He brushed my curls away from his chin, smoothing them down.
“I left her a letter,” I said. “It was all I could think to do—knowing I might…might not see her again.” I pressed my lips tight together and swallowed hard.
His fingertips stroked my back, very softly.
“Aye? That was good, Sassenach. What did ye say to her?”
I laughed, a little shakily.
“Everything I could think of. Motherly advice and wisdom—what I had of it. All the practical things—where the deed to the house and the family papers were. And everything I knew or could think of, about how to live. I expect she’ll ignore it all, and have a wonderful life—but at least she’ll know I thought about her.”
It had taken me nearly a week, going through the cupboards and desk drawers of the house in Boston, finding all of the business papers, the bankbooks and mortgage papers and the family things. There were a good many bits and pieces of Frank’s family lying about; huge scrapbooks and dozens of genealogy charts, albums of photographs, cartons of saved letters. My side of the family was a good deal simpler to sum up.
I lifted down the box I kept on the shelf of my closet. It was a small box. Uncle Lambert was a saver, as all scholars are, but there had been little to save. The essential documents of a small family—birth certificates, mine and my parents’, their marriage lines, the registration for the car that had killed them—what ironic whim had prompted Uncle Lamb to save that? More likely he had never opened the box, but only kept it, in a scholar’s blind faith that information must never be destroyed, for who knew what use it might be, and to whom?
I had seen its contents before, of course. There had been a period in my teens when I opened it nightly to look at the few photos it contained. I remembered the bone-deep longing for the mother I didn’t remember, and the vain effort to imagine her, to bring her back to life from the small dim images in the box.
The best of them was a close-up photograph of her, face turned toward the camera, warm eyes and a delicate mouth, smiling under the brim of a felt cloche hat. The photograph had been hand-tinted; the cheeks and lips were an unnatural rose-pink, the eyes soft brown. Uncle Lamb said that that was wrong; her eyes had been gold, he said, like mine.
I thought perhaps that time of deep need had passed for Brianna, but was not sure. I had had a studio portrait made of myself the week before; I placed it carefully in the box and closed it, and put the box in the center of my desk, where she would find it. Then I sat down to write.
My dear Bree— I wrote, and stopped. I couldn’t. Couldn’t possibly be contemplating abandoning my child. To see those three black words stark on the page brought the whole mad idea into a cold clarity that struck me to the bone.
My hand shook, and the tip of the pen made small wavering circles in the air above the paper. I put it down, and clasped my hands between my thighs, eyes closed.
“Get a grip on yourself, Beauchamp,” I muttered. “Write the bloody thing and have done. If she doesn’t need it, it will do no harm, and if she does, it will be there.” I picked up the pen and began again.
I don’t know if you will ever read this, but perhaps it’s as well to set it down. This is what I know of your grandparents (your real ones), your great-grandparents, and your medical history…
I wrote for some time, covering page after page. My mind grew calmer with the effort of recall, and the necessity of setting down the information clearly, and then I stopped, thinking.
What could I tell her, beyond those few bare bloodless facts? How to impart what sparse wisdom I had gained in forty-eight years of a fairly eventful life? My mouth twisted wryly in consideration of that. Did any daughter listen? Would I, had my mother been there to tell me?
It made no difference, though; I would just have to set it down, to be of use if it could.
But what was true, that would last forever, in spite of changing times and ways, what would stand her in good stead? Most of all, how could I tell her just how much I loved her?
The enormity of what I was about to do gaped before me, and my fingers clenched tight on the pen. I couldn’t think—not and do this. I could only set the pen to the paper and hope.
Baby—I wrote, and stopped. Then swallowed hard, and started again.
You are my baby, and always will be. You won’t know what that means until you have a child of your own, but I tell you now, anyway—you’ll always be as much a part of me as when you shared my body and I felt you move inside. Always.
I can look at you, asleep, and think of all the nights I tucked you in, coming in the dark to listen to your breathing, lay my hand on you and feel your chest rise and fall, knowing that no matter what happens, everything is right with the world because you are alive.
All the names I’ve called you through the years—my chick, my pumpkin, precious dove, darling, sweetheart, dinky, smudge…I know why the Jews and Muslims have nine hundred names for God; one small word is not enough for love.
I blinked hard to clear my vision, and went on writing, fast; I didn’t dare take time to choose my words, or I would never write them.
I remember everything about you, from the tiny line of golden down that zigged across your forehead when you were hours old to the bumpy toenail on the big toe you broke last year, when you had that fight with Jeremy and kicked the door of his pickup truck.
God, it breaks my heart to think it will stop now—that watching you, seeing all the tiny changes—I won’t know when you stop biting your nails, if you ever do—seeing you grow suddenly taller than I, and your face take its shape. I always will remember, Bree, I always will.
There’s probably no one else on earth, Bree, who knows what the back of your ears looked like when you were three years old. I used to sit beside you, reading “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish,” or “The Three Billy Goats Gruff,” and see those ears turn pink with happiness. Your skin was so clear and fragile, I thought a touch would leave fingerprints on you.
You look like Jamie, I told you. You have something from me, too, though—look at the picture of my mother, in the box, and the little black-and-white one of her mother and grandmother. You have that broad clear brow they have; so do I. I’ve seen a good many of the Frasers, too—I think you’ll age well, if you take care of your skin.
Take care of everything, Bree—oh, I wish—well, I have wished I could take care of you and protect you from everything all your life, but I can’t, whether I stay or go. Take care of yourself, though—for me.
The tears were puckering the paper now; I had to stop to blot them, lest they smear the ink beyond reading. I wiped my face, and resumed, slower now.
You should know, Bree—I don’t regret it. In spite of everything, I don’t regret it. You’ll know something now, of how lonely I was for so long, without Jamie. It doesn’t matter. If the price of that separation was your life, neither Jamie nor I can regret it—I know he wouldn’t mind my speaking for him.
Bree…you are my joy. You’re perfect, and wonderful—and I hear you saying now, in that tone of exasperation, “But of course you think that—you’re my mother!” Yes, that’s how I know.
Bree, you are worth everything—and more. I’ve done a great many things in my life so far, but the most important of them all was to love your father and you.
I blew my nose and reached for another fresh sheet of paper. That was the most important thing; I could never say all I felt, but this was the best I could do. What might I add, to be of aid in living well, in growing up and growing old? What had I learned, that I might pass on to her?
Choose a man like your father, I wrote. Either of them. I shook my head over that—could there be two men more different?—but left it, thinking of Roger Wakefield. Once you’ve chosen a man, don’t try to change him, I wrote, with more confidence. It can’t be done. More important—don’t let him try to change you. He can’t do it either, but men always try.
I bit the end of the pen, tasting the bitter tang of India ink. And finally I put down the last and the best advice I knew, on growing older.
Stand up straight and try not to get fat.
With All My Love Always,
Jamie’s shoulders shook as he leaned against the rail, whether with laughter or some other emotion, I couldn’t tell. His linen glowed white with moonlight, and his head was dark against the moon. At last he turned and pulled me to him.
“I think she will do verra well,” he whispered. “For no matter what poor gowk has fathered her, no lass has ever had a better mother. Kiss me, Sassenach, for believe me—I wouldna change ye for the world.”
Fergus, Mr. Willoughby, Jamie, and I had all kept careful watch upon the six Scottish smugglers since our departure from Scotland, but there was not the slightest hint of suspicious behavior from any of them, and after a time, I found myself relaxing my wariness around them. Still, I felt some reserve toward most of them, save Innes. I had finally realized why neither Fergus nor Jamie thought him a possible traitor; with but one arm, Innes was the only smuggler who could not have strung up the exciseman on the Arbroath road.
Innes was a quiet man. None of the Scots was what one might call garrulous, but even by their high standards of taciturnity, he was reserved. I was therefore not surprised to see him grimacing silently one morning, bent over behind a hatch cover, evidently engaged in some silent internal battle.
“Have you a pain, Innes?” I asked, stopping.
“Och!” He straightened, startled, but then fell back into his half-crouched position, his one arm locked across his belly. “Mmphm,” he muttered, his thin face flushing at being so discovered.
“Come along with me,” I said, taking him by the elbow. He looked frantically about for salvation, but I towed him, resisting but not audibly protesting, back to my cabin, where I forced him to sit upon the table and removed his shirt so that I could examine him.
I palpated his lean and hairy abdomen, feeling the firm, smooth mass of the liver on one side, and the mildly distended curve of the stomach on the other. The intermittent way in which the pains came on, causing him to writhe like a worm on a hook, then passing off, gave me a good idea that what troubled him was simple flatulence, but best to be thorough.