Author: P Hana

Page 142


“Oh, I had quite forgotten! You will be needing a change of clothing, will you not, Mrs. Fraser?”

I looked down at myself. The dress and shift I was wearing were ripped in so many places that they were barely decent, and so soaked and sodden with water and swamp-mud that I was scarcely tolerable, even in such undemanding company as that of Father Fogden and Lawrence Stern.

Father Fogden turned to the graven image. “Have we not something this unfortunate lady might wear, Mamacita?” he asked in Spanish. He seemed to hesitate, swaying gently. “Perhaps, one of the dresses in—”

The woman bared her teeth at me. “They are much too small for such a cow,” she said, also in Spanish. “Give her your old robe, if you must.” She cast an eye of scorn on my tangled hair and mud-streaked face. “Come,” she said in English, turning her back on me. “You wash.”

She led me to a smaller patio at the back of the house, where she provided me with two buckets of cold, fresh water, a worn linen towel, and a small pot of soft soap, smelling strongly of lye. Adding a shabby gray robe with a rope belt, she bared her teeth at me again and left, remarking genially in Spanish, “Wash away the blood on your hands, Christ-killing whore.”

I shut the patio gate after her with a considerable feeling of relief, stripped off my sticky, filthy clothes with even more relief, and made my toilet as well as might be managed with cold water and no comb.

Clad decently, if oddly, in Father Fogden’s extra robe, I combed out my wet hair with my fingers, contemplating my peculiar host. I wasn’t sure whether the priest’s excursions into oddness were some form of dementia, or only the side effects of long-term alcoholism and cannabis intoxication, but he seemed a gentle, kindly soul, in spite of it. His servant—if that’s what she was—was another question altogether.

Mamacita made me more than slightly nervous. Mr. Stern had announced his intention of going down to the seaside to bathe, and I was reluctant to go back into the house until he returned. There had been quite a lot of sangria left, and I suspected that Father Fogden—if he was still conscious—would be little protection by this time against that basilisk glare.

Still, I couldn’t stay outside all afternoon; I was very tired, and wanted to sit down at least, though I would have preferred to find a bed and sleep for a week. There was a door opening into the house from my small patio; I pushed it open and stepped into the dark interior.

I was in a small bedroom. I looked around, amazed; it didn’t seem part of the same house as the Spartan main room and the shabby patios. The bed was made up with feather pillows and a coverlet of soft red wool. Four huge patterned fans were spread like bright wings across the whitewashed walls, and wax candles in a branched brass candelabrum sat on the table.

The furniture was simply but carefully made, and polished with oil to a soft, deep gloss. A curtain of striped cotton hung across the end of the room. It was pushed partway back, and I could see a row of dresses hung on hooks behind it, in a rainbow of silken color.

These must be Ermenegilda’s dresses, the ones that Father Fogden had mentioned. I walked forward to look at them, my bare feet quiet on the floor. The room was dustless and clean, but very quiet, without the scent or vibration of human occupancy. No one lived in this room anymore.

The dresses were beautiful; all of silk and velvet, moiré and satin, mousse-line and panne. Even hanging lifeless here from their hooks, they had the sheen and beauty of an animal’s pelt, where some essence of life lingers in the fur.

I touched one bodice, purple velvet, heavy with embroidered silver pansies, centered with pearls. She had been small, this Ermenegilda, and slightly built—several of the dresses had ruffles and pads cleverly sewn inside the bodices, to add to the illusion of a bust. The room was comfortable, though not luxurious; the dresses were splendid—things that might have been worn at Court in Madrid.

Ermenegilda was gone, but the room still seemed inhabited. I touched a sleeve of peacock blue in farewell and tiptoed away, leaving the dresses to their dreams.

I found Lawrence Stern on the veranda at the back of the house, overlooking a precipitous slope of aloe and guava. In the distance, a small humped island sat cradled in a sea of glimmering turquoise. He rose in courtesy, giving me a small bow and a look of surprise.

“Mrs. Fraser! You are in greatly improved looks, I must say. The Father’s robe suits you somewhat more than it does him.” He smiled at me, hazel eyes creasing in a flattering expression of admiration.

“I expect the absence of dirt has more to do with it,” I said, sitting down in the chair he offered me. “Is that something to drink?” There was a pitcher on the rickety wooden table between the chairs; moisture had condensed in a heavy dew on the sides and droplets ran enticingly down the sides. I had been thirsty so long that the sight of anything liquid automatically made my cheeks draw in with longing.

“More sangria,” Stern said. He poured out a small cupful for each of us, and sipped his own, sighing with enjoyment. “I hope you will not think me intemperate, Mrs. Fraser, but after months of tramping country, drinking nothing but water and the slaves’ crude rum—” He closed his eyes in bliss. “Ambrosia.”

I was rather disposed to agree.

“Er…is Father Fogden…?” I hesitated, looking for some tactful way of inquiring after our host’s state. I needn’t have bothered.

“Drunk,” Stern said frankly. “Limp as a worm, laid out on the table in the sala. He nearly always is, by the time the sun’s gone down,” he added.

“I see.” I settled back in the chair, sipping my own sangria. “Have you known Father Fogden long?”

Stern rubbed a hand over his forehead, thinking. “Oh, for a few years.” He glanced at me. “I was wondering—do you by chance know a James Fraser, from Edinburgh? I realize it is a common name, but—oh, you do?”

I hadn’t spoken, but my face had given me away, as it always did, unless I was carefully prepared to lie.

“My husband’s name is James Fraser,” I said.

Stern’s face lighted with interest. “Indeed!” he exclaimed. “And is he a very large fellow, with—”

“Red hair,” I agreed. “Yes, that’s Jamie.” Something occurred to me. “He told me he’d met a natural philosopher in Edinburgh, and had a most interesting conversation about…various things.” What I was wondering was where Stern had learned Jamie’s real name. Most people in Edinburgh would have known him only as “Jamie Roy,” the smuggler, or as Alexander Malcolm, the respectable printer of Carfax Close. Surely Dr. Stern, with his distinct German accent, couldn’t be the “Englishman” Tompkins had spoken of?

“Spiders,” Stern said promptly. “Yes, I recall perfectly. Spiders and caves. We met in a—a—” His face went blank for a moment. Then he coughed, masterfully covering the lapse. “In a, um, drinking establishment. One of the—ah— female employees happened to encounter a large specimen of Arachmida hanging from the ceiling in her—that is, from the ceiling as she was engaged in…ah, conversation with me. Being somewhat frightened in consequence, she burst into the passageway, shrieking incoherently.” Stern took a large gulp of sangria as a restorative, evidently finding the memory stressful.

“I had just succeeded in capturing the animal and securing it in a specimen jar when Mr. Fraser burst into the room, pointed a species of firearm at me, and said—” Here Stern developed a prolonged coughing fit, pounding himself vigorously on the chest.

“Eheu! Do you not find this particular pitcher perhaps a trifle strong, Mrs. Fraser? I suspect that the old woman has added too many sliced lemons.”

I suspected that Mamacita would have added cyanide, had she any to hand, but in fact the sangria was excellent.

“I hadn’t noticed,” I said, sipping. “But do go on. Jamie came in with a pistol and said—?”

“Oh. Well, in fact, I cannot say I recall precisely what was said. There appeared to have been a slight misapprehension, owing to his impression that the lady’s outcry was occasioned by some inopportune motion or speech of my own, rather than by the arachnid. Fortunately, I was able to display the beast to him, whereupon the lady was induced to come so far as the door—we could not persuade her to enter the room again—and identify it as the cause of her distress.”

“I see,” I said. I could envision the scene very well indeed, save for one point of paramount interest. “Do you happen to recall what he was wearing? Jamie?”

Lawrence Stern looked blank. “Wearing? Why…no. My impression is that he was clad for the street, rather than in dishabille, but—”

“That’s quite all right,” I assured him. “I only wondered.” “Clad,” after all, was the operative word. “So he introduced himself to you?”

Stern frowned, running a hand through his thick black curls. “I don’t believe he did. As I recall, the lady referred to him as Mr. Fraser; sometime later in the conversation—we availed ourselves of suitable refreshment and remained conversing nearly until the dawn, finding considerable interest in each other’s company, you see. At some point, he invited me to address him by his given name.” He raised one eyebrow sardonically. “I trust you do not think it overfamiliar of me to have done so, upon such brief acquaintance?”

“No, no. Of course not.” Wanting to change the subject, I continued, “You said you talked about spiders and caves? Why caves?”

“By way of Robert the Bruce and the story—which your husband was inclined to think apocryphal—regarding his inspiration to persevere in his quest for the throne of Scotland. Presumably, the Bruce was in hiding in a cave, pursued by his enemies, and—”

“Yes, I know the story,” I interrupted.

“It was James’s opinion that spiders do not frequent caves in which humans dwell; an opinion with which I basically concurred, though pointing out that in the larger type of cave, such as occurs on this island—”

“There are caves here?” I was surprised, and then felt foolish. “But of course, there must be, if there are cave fish, like the one in the spring. I always thought Caribbean islands were made of coral, though. I shouldn’t have thought you’d find caves in coral.”

“Well, it is possible, though not highly likely,” Stern said judiciously. “However, the island of Hispaniola is not a coral atoll but is basically volcanic in origin—with the addition of crystalline schists, fossiliferous sedimentary deposits of a considerable antiquity, and widespread deposits of limestone. The limestone is particularly karstic in spots.”

“You don’t say.” I poured a fresh cup of spiced wine.

“Oh, yes.” Lawrence leaned over to pick up his bag from the floor of the veranda. Pulling out a notebook, he tore a sheet of paper from it and crumpled it in his fist.

“There,” he said, holding out his hand. The paper slowly unfolded itself, leaving a mazed topography of creases and crumpled peaks. “That is what this island is like—you remember what Father Fogden was saying about the Maroons? The runaway slaves who have taken refuge in these hills? It is not lack of pursuit on the part of their masters that allows them to vanish with such ease. There are many parts of this island where no man—white or black, I daresay—has yet set foot. And in the lost hills, there are caves still more lost, whose existence no one knows save perhaps the aboriginal inhabitants of this place—and they are long gone, Mrs. Fraser.