Author: P Hana

Page 174


MacRae had untied the body and carried it, lolling, to the barrel of pitch ready waiting.

“The court granted me the mercy to be weirrit before the burning,” Geillis explained ironically. “So they expected the body to be dead—no difficulty there, if I was strangled already. The only thing anyone might ha’ seen was that Grannie Joan weighed half what I did, newly delivered as I was, but no one seemed to notice she was light in MacRae’s arms.”

“You were there?” I said.

She nodded smugly. “Oh, aye. Well muffled in a cloak—everyone was, because o’ the weather—but I wouldna have missed it.”

As the priest finished his last prayer against the evils of enchantment, MacRae had taken the pine torch from his assistant and stepped forward.

“God, omit not this woman from Thy covenant, and the many evils that she in the body committed,” he had said, and flung the fire into the pitch.

“It was faster than I thought it would be,” Geillis said, sounding mildly surprised. “A great whoosh! of fire—there was a blast of hot air and a cheer from the crowd, and naught to be seen but the flames, shooting up high enough to singe the rowan branches overhead.”

The fire had subsided within a minute, though, and the dark figure within was clear enough to be seen through the pale daylight flames. The hood and the hair had burned away with the first scorching rush, and the face itself was burned beyond recognition. A few moments more, and the clean dark shapes of the bones emerged from the melted flesh, an airy superstructure rising above the charring barrel.

“Only great empty holes where her eyes had been,” she said. The moss-green eyes turned toward me, clouded by memory. “I thought perhaps she was looking at me. But then the skull exploded, and it was all over, and folk began to come away—all except a few who stayed in hopes of picking up a bit of bone as a keepsake.”

She rose and went unsteadily to the small table near the window. She picked up the silver bell and rang it, hard.

“Aye,” she said, her back turned to us. “Childbirth is maybe easier.”

“So Dougal got ye away to France,” Jamie said. The fingers of his right hand twitched slightly. “How came ye here to the West Indies?”

“Oh, that was later,” she said carelessly. “After Culloden.” She turned then, and smiled from Jamie to me.

“And what might bring the two of ye here to this place? Surely not the pleasure of my company?”

I glanced at Jamie, seeing the slight tensing of his back as he sat up straighter. His face stayed calm, though, only his eyes bright with wariness.

“We’ve come to seek a young kinsman of mine,” he said. “My nephew, Ian Murray. We’ve some reason to think he is indentured here.”

Geilie’s pale brows rose high, making soft ridges in her forehead.

“Ian Murray?” she said, and shook her head in puzzlement. “I’ve no indentured whites at all, here. No whites, come to that. The only free man on the place is the overseer, and he’s what they call a griffone; one-quarter black.”

Unlike me, Geillis Duncan was a very good liar. Impossible to tell, from her expression of mild interest, whether she had ever heard the name Ian Murray before. But lying she was, and I knew it.

Jamie knew it, too; the expression that flashed through his eyes was not disappointment, but fury, quickly suppressed.

“Indeed?” he said politely. “And are ye not fearful, then, alone wi’ your slaves here, so far from town?”

“Oh, no. Not at all.”

She smiled broadly at him, then lifted her double chin and waggled it gently in the direction of the terrace behind him. I turned my head, and saw that the French door was filled from jamb to doorpost with an immense black man, several inches taller than Jamie, from whose rolled-up shirt sleeves protruded arms like tree trunks, knotted with muscle.

“Meet Hercules,” Geilie said, with a tiny laugh. “He has a twin brother, too.”

“Named Atlas, by chance?” I asked, with an edge to my voice.

“You guessed! Is she no the clever one, eh, fox?” She winked conspiratorially at Jamie, the rounded flesh of her cheek wobbling with the movement. The light caught her from the side as she turned her head, and I saw the red spiderwebs of tiny broken capillaries that netted her jowls.

Hercule took no note of this, or of anything else. His broad face was slack and dull, and there was no life in the deep-sunk eyes beneath the bony brow ridge. It gave me a very uneasy feeling to look at him, and not only because of his threatening size; looking at him was like passing by a haunted house, where something lurks behind blind windows.

“That will do, Hercule; ye can go back to work now.” Geilie picked up the silver bell and tinkled it gently, once. Without a word, the giant turned and lumbered off the veranda. “I have no fear o’ the slaves,” she explained. “They’re afraid o’ me, for they think I’m a witch. Verra funny, considering, is it not?” Her eyes twinkled behind little pouches of fat.

“Geilie—that man.” I hesitated, feeling ridiculous in asking such a question. “He’s not a—a zombie?”

She laughed delightedly at that, clapping her hands together.

“Christ, a zombie? Jesus, Claire!” She chortled with glee, a bright pink rising from throat to hair roots.

“Well, I’ll tell ye, he’s no verra bright,” she said at last, still gasping and wheezing. “But he’s no dead, either!” and went off into further gales of laughter.

Jamie stared at me, puzzled.


“Never mind,” I said, my face nearly as pink as Geilie’s. “How many slaves have you got here?” I asked, wanting to change the subject.

“Hee hee,” she said, winding down into giggles. “Oh, a hundred or so. It’s no such a big place. Only three hundred acres in cane, and a wee bit of coffee on the upper slopes.”

She pulled a lace-trimmed handkerchief from her pocket and patted her damp face, sniffing a bit as she regained her composure. I could feel, rather than see, Jamie’s tension. I was sure he was as convinced as I that Geilie knew something about Ian Murray—if nothing else, she had betrayed no surprise whatever at our appearance. Someone had told her about us, and that someone could only be Ian.

The thought of threatening a woman to extract information wasn’t one that would come naturally to Jamie, but it would to me. Unfortunately, the presence of the twin pillars of Hercules had put a stop to that line of thought. The next best idea seemed to be to search the house and grounds for any trace of the boy. Three hundred acres was a fair piece of ground, but if he was on the property, he would likely be in or near the buildings—the house, the sugar refinery, or the slave quarters.

I came out of my thoughts to realize that Geilie had asked me a question.

“What’s that?”

“I said,” she repeated patiently, “that ye had a great deal of talent for the healing when I knew ye in Scotland; you’ll maybe know more now?”

“I expect I might.” I looked her over cautiously. Did she want my skill for herself? She wasn’t healthy; a glance at her mottled complexion and the dark circles beneath her eyes was enough to show that. But was she actively ill?

“Not for me,” she said, seeing my look. “Not just now, anyway. I’ve two slaves gone sick. Maybe ye’d be so kind as to look at them?”

I glanced at Jamie, who gave me the shadow of a nod. It was a chance to get into the slave quarters and look for Ian.

“I saw when we came in as ye had a bit of trouble wi’ your sugar press,” he said, rising abruptly. He gave Geilie a cool nod. “Perhaps I shall have a look at it, whilst you and my wife tend the sick.” Without waiting for an answer, he took off his coat and hung it on the peg by the door. He went out by the veranda, rolling up the sleeves of his shirt, sunlight glinting on his hair.

“A handy sort, is he?” Geilie looked after him, amused. “My husband Barnabas was that sort—couldna keep his hands off any kind of machine. Or off the slave girls, either,” she added. “Come along, the sick ones are back o’ the kitchen.”

The kitchen was in a separate small building of its own, connected to the house by a breezeway covered with blooming jasmine. Walking through it was like floating through a cloud of perfume, surrounded by a hum of bees loud enough to be felt on the skin, like the low drone of a bagpipe.

“Ever been stung?” Geillis swiped casually at a low-flying furry body, batting it out of the air.

“Now and then.”

“So have I,” she said. “Any number of times, and nothing worse than a red welt on my skin to show for it. One of these wee buggers stung one o’ the kitchen slaves last spring, though, and the wench swelled up like a toad and died, right before my eyes!” She glanced at me, eyes wide and mocking. “Did wonders for my reputation, I can tell ye. The rest o’ the slaves put it about I’d witched the lass; put a spell on her to kill her for burning the sponge cake. I havena had so much as a scorched pot, since.” Shaking her head, she waved away another bee.

While appalled at her callousness, I was somewhat relieved by the story. Perhaps the other gossip I had heard at the Governor’s ball had as little foundation in fact.

I paused, looking out through the jasmine’s lacy leaves at the cane fields below. Jamie was in the clearing by the sugar press, looking up at the gigantic crossbars of the machine while a man I assumed to be the overseer pointed and explained. As I watched, he said something, gesturing, and the overseer nodded emphatically, waving his hands in voluble reply. If I didn’t find any trace of Ian in the kitchen quarters, perhaps Jamie would learn something from the overseer. Despite Geilie’s denials, every instinct I had insisted that the boy was here—somewhere.

There was no sign of him in the kitchen itself; only three or four women, kneading bread and snapping peas, who looked up curiously as we came through. I caught the eye of one young woman, and nodded and smiled at her; perhaps I would have a chance to come back and talk, later. Her eyes widened in surprise, and she bent her head at once, eyes on the bowl of peapods in her lap. I saw her steal a quick glance at me as we crossed the long room, and noticed that she balanced the bowl in front of the small bulge of an early pregnancy.

The first sick slave was in a small pantry off the kitchen itself, lying on a pallet laid under shelves stacked high with gauze-wrapped cheeses. The patient, a young man in his twenties, sat up blinking at the sudden ray of light when I opened the door.

“What’s the trouble with him?” I knelt down beside the man and touched his skin. Warm, damp, no apparent fever. He didn’t seem in any particular distress, merely blinking sleepily as I examined him.

“He has a worm.”

I glanced at Geilie in surprise. From what I had seen and heard so far in the islands, I thought it likely that at least three-quarters of the black population—and not a few of the whites—suffered from internal parasites. Nasty and debilitating as these could be, though, most were actively threatening only to the very young and the very old.