Voyager

Author: P Hana

Page 172

   

The Chinaman had not been found in spite of an intensive search of the town by the island militia. The special detachment of marines from the barracks on Antigua was expected to arrive tomorrow. In the meantime, every house in Kingston was shut up like a bank vault, the owners armed to the teeth.

The mood of the town was thoroughly dangerous. Like the naval officers; it was the militia colonel’s opinion that if the Chinaman were found, he would be lucky to survive long enough to be hanged.

“Be torn to pieces, I expect,” Colonel Jacobs had said as he escorted us from the Residence on the night of the murder. “Have his balls ripped off and thrust down his stinking throat, I daresay,” he added, with obvious grim satisfaction at the thought.

“I daresay,” Jamie had murmured in French, assisting me into the carriage. I knew that the question of Mr. Willoughby was still troubling him; he had been quiet and thoughtful on the ride through the mountains. And yet there was nothing we could do. If the little Chinese was innocent, we could not save him; if he was guilty, we could not give him up. The best we might hope for was that he would not be found.

And in the meantime, we had five days to find Young Ian. If he were indeed at Rose Hall, all might be well. If he were not…

A fence and small gate marked the division of the plantation from the surrounding forest. Inside, the ground had been cleared, and planted in sugarcane and coffee. Some distance from the house, on a separate rise, a large, plain, mud-daub building stood, roofed with palm thatch. Dark-skinned people were going in and out, and the faint, cloying scent of burnt sugar hung over the place.

Below the refinery—or so I assumed the building to be—stood a large sugar press. A primitive-looking affair, this consisted of a pair of huge timbers crossed in the shape of an X, set on an enormous spindle, surmounting the boxlike body of the press. Two or three men were clambering over the press, but it was not working at present; the oxen who drove it were hobbled some distance away, grazing.

“How do they ever get the sugar down from here?” I asked curiously, thinking of the narrow trail we had come up. “On mules?” I brushed cedar needles off the shoulders of my coat, making myself presentable.

“No,” Jamie answered absently. “They send it down the river on barges. The river’s just over there, down the wee pass ye can see beyond the house.” He pointed with his chin, reining up with one hand, and using the other to beat the dust of travel from the skirts of his coat.

“Ready, Sassenach?”

“As I’ll ever be.”

Rose Hall was a two-storied house; long and graciously proportioned, with a roof laid in expensive slates, rather than in the sheets of tin that covered most of the planters’ residences. A long veranda ran all along one side of the house, with long windows and French doors opening on to it.

A great yellow rosebush grew by the front door, climbing on a trellis and spilling over the edge of the roof. The scent of its perfume was so heady that it made breathing difficult; or perhaps it was only excitement that made my breath come short and stick in my throat. I glanced around as we waited for the door to be answered, trying to catch a glimpse of any white-skinned figure near the sugar refinery above.

“Yes, sah?” A middle-aged slave woman opened the door, looking out curiously at us. She was wide-bodied, dressed in a white cotton smock, with a red turban wrapped round her head, and her skin was the deep, rich gold in the heart of the flowers on the trellis.

“Mr. and Mrs. Malcolm, to call upon Mrs. Abernathy, if ye please,” Jamie said politely. The woman looked rather taken aback, as though callers were not a common occurrence, but after a moment’s indecision, she nodded and stepped back, swinging the door wide.

“You be waitin’ in the salon, please, sah,” she said, in a soft lilt that made it “sallong.” “I be askin’ the mistress will she see you.”

It was a large room, long and graciously proportioned, lit by huge casement windows all down one side. At the far end of the room was the fireplace, an enormous structure with a stone overmantel and a hearth of polished slates that occupied nearly the whole wall. You could have roasted an ox in it without the slightest difficulty, and the presence of a large spit suggested that the owner of the house did so on occasion.

The slave had shown us to a wicker sofa and invited us to be seated. I sat, looking about, but Jamie strolled restlessly about the room, peering through the windows that gave a view of the cane fields below the house.

It was an odd room; comfortably furnished with wicker and rattan furniture, well-equipped with fat, soft cushions, but ornamented with small, uncommon curios. On one window ledge sat a row of silver handbells, graduated from small to large. Several squat figures of stone and terra-cotta sat together on the table by my elbow; some sort of primitive fetishes or idols.

All of them were in the shape of women, hugely pregnant, or with enormous, rounded br**sts and exaggerated hips, and all with a vivid and mildly disturbing sexuality about them. It was not a prudish age, by any means, but I wouldn’t have expected to find such objects in a drawing room in any age.

Somewhat more orthodox were the Jacobite relics. A silver snuffbox, a glass flagon, a decorated fan, a large serving platter—even the large woven rug on the floor; all decorated with the square white rose of the Stuarts. That wasn’t so odd—a great many Jacobites who had fled Scotland after Culloden had come to the West Indies to seek the repair of their fortunes. I found the sight encouraging. A householder with Jacobite sympathies might be welcoming to a fellow Scot, and willing to oblige in the matter of Ian. If he’s here, a small voice in my head warned.

Steps sounded in the inner part of the house, and there was a flutter at the door by the hearth. Jamie made a small grunting sound, as though someone had hit him, and I looked up, to see the mistress of the house step into the room.

I rose to my feet, and the small silver cup I had picked up fell to the floor with a clank.

“Kept your girlish figure, I see, Claire.” Her head was tilted to one side, green eyes gleaming with amusement.

I was too paralyzed with surprise to respond aloud, but the thought drifted through my stunned mind that I couldn’t say the same for her.

Geillis Duncan had always had a voluptuous abundance of creamy bosom and a generous swell of rounded hip. While still creamy-skinned, she was considerably more abundant and generous, in every dimension visible. She wore a loose muslin gown, under which the soft, thick flesh wobbled and swayed as she moved. The delicate bones of her face had long since been submerged in swelling plumpness, but the brilliant green eyes were the same, filled with malice and humor.

I took a deep breath, and got my voice back.

“I trust you won’t take this the wrong way,” I said, sinking slowly back onto the wicker sofa, “but why aren’t you dead?”

She laughed, the silver in her voice as clear as a young girl’s.

“Think I should have been, do you? Well, you’re no the first—and I daresay you’ll not be the last to think so, either.”

Eyes creased to bright green triangles by amusement, she sank into her own chair, nodded casually to Jamie, and clapped her hands sharply to summon a servant. “Shall we have a dish of tea?” she asked me. “Do, and I’ll read the leaves in your cup for ye, after. I’ve a reputation as a reader, after all; a fine teller o’ the future, to be sure—and why not?” She laughed again, plump cheeks pinkening with mirth. If she had been as shocked by my appearance as I was at hers, she disguised it masterfully.

“Tea,” she said, to the black maidservant who appeared in response to the summons. “The special kind in the blue tin, aye? And the bittie cakes wi’ the nuts in, too.”

“You’ll take a bite?” she asked, turning back to me. “’Tis something of an occasion, after all. I did wonder,” she said, tilting her head to one side, like a gull judging the chances of snatching a fish, “whether our paths might cross again, after that day at Cranesmuir.”

My heart was beginning to slow, the shock overcome in a great wave of curiosity. I could feel the questions bubbling up by the dozens, and picked one off the top at random.

“Did you know me?” I asked. “When you met me in Cranesmuir?”

She shook her head, the strands of cream-white hair coming loose from their pins and sliding down her neck. She poked haphazardly at her knot, still surveying me with interest.

“Not at the first, no. Though sure and I thought there was a great strangeness about ye—not that I was the only one to think that. Ye didna come through the stones prepared, did ye? Not on purpose, I mean?”

I bit back the words, “Not that time,” and said instead, “No, it was an accident. You came on purpose, though—from 1967?”

She nodded, studying me intently. The thickened flesh between her brows was creased, and the crease deepened slightly as she looked at me.

“Aye—to help Prince Tearlach.” Her mouth twisted to one side, as though she tasted something bad, and quite suddenly, she turned her head and spat. The globule of saliva hit the polished wooden floor with an audible plop.

“An gealtaire salach Atailteach!” she said. “Filthy Italian coward!” Her eyes darkened and shone with no pleasant light. “Had I known, I should have made my way to Rome and killed him, while there was time. His brother Henry might ha’ been no better, though—a ballock-less, sniveling priest, that one. Not that it made a difference. After Culloden, any Stuart would be as useless as another.”

She sighed, and shifted her bulk, the rattan of the chair creaking beneath her. She waved a hand impatiently, dismissing the Stuarts.

“Still, that’s done with for now. Ye came by accident—walked through the stones near the date of a Fire Feast, did ye? That’s how it usually happens.”

“Yes,” I said, startled. “I came through on Beltane. But what do you mean, ‘usually happens’? Have you met a great many others—like…us?” I ended hesitantly.

She shook her head rather absently. “Not many.” She seemed to be pondering something, though perhaps it was only the absence of her refreshments; she picked up the silver bell and rang it violently.

“Damn that Clotilda! Like us?” she said, returning to the question at hand. “No, I haven’t. Only one besides you, that I ken. Ye could ha’ knocked me over wi’ a feather, when I saw the wee scar on your arm, and kent ye for one like myself.” She touched the great swell of her own upper arm, where the small vaccination scar lay hidden beneath the puff of white muslin. She tilted her head in that bird-like way again, surveying me with one bright green eye.

“No, when I said that’s how it usually happens, I meant, judging from the stories. Folk who disappear in fairy rings and the stone circles, I mean. They usually walk through near Beltane or Samhain; a few near the Sun Feasts—Midsummer’s Day or the winter solstice.”

“That’s what the list was!” I said suddenly, reminded of the gray notebook I had left with Roger Wakefield. “You had a list of dates and initials—nearly two hundred of them. I didn’t know what they were, but I saw that the dates were mostly in late April or early May, or near the end of October.”

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