Voyager

Author: P Hana

Page 51

   

“I think so.” I felt breathless, but quite certain at the same time, with an upwelling of incredulous joy. “Yes, I’m almost sure. Jamie wrote this.” Q.E.D., indeed! I had an absurd urge to tear the manuscript pages out of their plastic shrouds and clutch them in my hands, to feel the ink and paper he had touched; the certain evidence that he had survived.

“There’s more. Internal evidence.” Roger’s voice betrayed his pride. “See there? It’s an article against the Excise Act of 1764, advocating the repeal of the restrictions on export of liquor from the Scottish Highlands to England. Here it is”—his racing finger stopped suddenly on a phrase—“‘for as has been known for ages past, “Freedom and Whisky gang tegither.” ’ See how he’s put that Scottish dialect phrase in quotes? He got it from somewhere else.”

“He got it from me,” I said softly. “I told him that—when he was setting out to steal Prince Charles’s port.”

“I remembered.” Roger nodded, eyes shining with excitement. “But it’s a quote from Burns,” I said, frowning suddenly. “Perhaps the writer got it there—wasn’t Burns alive then?”

“He was,” said Bree smugly, forestalling Roger. “But Robert Burns was six years old in 1765.”

“And Jamie would be forty-four.” Suddenly, it all seemed real. He was alive—had been alive, I corrected myself, trying to keep my emotions in check. I laid my fingers flat against the manuscript pages, trembling.

“And if—” I said, and had to stop to swallow again.

“And if time goes on in parallel, as we think it does—” Roger stopped, too, looking at me. Then his eyes shifted to Brianna.

She had gone quite pale, but both lips and eyes were steady, and her fingers were warm when she touched my hand.

“Then you can go back, Mama,” she said softly. “You can find him.”

The plastic hangers rattled against the steel tubing of the dress rack as I thumbed my way slowly through the available selection.

“Can I be helpin’ ye at all, miss?” The salesgirl peered up at me like a helpful Pekingese, blue-ringed eyes barely visible through bangs that brushed the top of her nose.

“Have you got any more of these old-fashioned sorts of dresses?” I gestured at the rack before me, thick with examples of the current craze—laced-bodiced, long-skirted dresses in gingham cotton and velveteen.

The salesgirl’s mouth was caked so thickly that I expected the white lipstick to crack when she smiled, but it didn’t.

“Oh, aye,” she said. “Got a new lot o’ the Jessica Gutenburgs in just today. Aren’t they the grooviest, these old-style gowns?” She ran an admiring finger over a brown velvet sleeve, then whirled on her ballet flats and pointed toward the center of the store. “Just there, aye? Where it says, on the sign.”

The sign, stuck on the top of a circular rack, said CAPTURE THE CHARM OF THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY in large white letters across the top. Just below, in curlicue script, was the signature, Jessica Gutenburg.

Reflecting on the basic improbability of anyone actually being named Jessica Gutenburg, I waded through the contents of the rack, pausing at a truly stunning number in cream velvet, with satin inserts and a good deal of lace.

“Look lovely on, that would.” The Pekingese was back, pug nose sniffing hopefully for a sale.

“Maybe so,” I said, “but not very practical. You’d get filthy just walking out of the store.” I pushed the white dress away with some regret, proceeding to the next size ten.

“Oh, I just love the red ones!” The girl clasped her hands in ecstasy at the brilliant garnet fabric.

“So do I,” I murmured, “but we don’t want to look too garish. Wouldn’t do to be taken for a prostitute, would it?” The Peke gave me a startled look through the thickets, then decided I was joking, and giggled appreciatively.

“Now, that one,” she said decisively, reaching past me, “that’s perfect, that is. That’s your color, here.”

Actually, it was almost perfect. Floor-length, with three-quarter sleeves edged with lace. A deep, tawny gold, with shimmers of brown and amber and sherry in the heavy silk.

I lifted it carefully off the rack and held it up to examine it. A trifle fancy, but it might do. The construction seemed halfway decent; no loose threads or unraveling seams. The machine-made lace on the bodice was just tacked on, but that would be easy enough to reinforce.

“Want to try it on? The dressing rooms are just over there.” The Peke was frisking about near my elbow, encouraged by my interest. Taking a quick look at the price tag, I could see why; she must work on commission. I took a deep breath at the figure, which would cover a month’s rent on a London flat, but then shrugged. After all, what did I need money for?

Still, I hesitated.

“I don’t know…” I said doubtfully, “it is lovely. But…”

“Oh, don’t worry a bit about it’s being too young for you,” the Pekingese reassured me earnestly. “You don’t look a day over twenty-five! Well…maybe thirty,” she concluded lamely, after a quick glance at my face.

“Thanks,” I said dryly. “I wasn’t worried about that, though. I don’t suppose you have any without zippers, do you?”

“Zippers?” Her small round face went quite blank beneath the makeup. “Erm…no. Don’t think we do.”

“Well, not to worry,” I said, taking the dress over my arm and turning toward the dressing room. “If I go through with this, zippers will be the least of it.”

22

ALL HALLOWS’ EVE

Two golden guineas, six sovereigns, twenty-three shillings, eighteen florins ninepence, ten halfpence, and…twelve farthings.” Roger dropped the last coin on the tinkling pile, then dug into his shirt pocket, lean face absorbed as he searched. “Oh, here.” He brought out a small plastic bag and carefully poured a handful of tiny copper coins into a pile alongside the other money.

“Doits,” he explained. “The smallest denomination of Scottish coinage of the time. I got as many as I could, because that’s likely what you’d use most of the time. You wouldn’t use the large coins unless you had to buy a horse or something.”

“I know.” I picked up a couple of sovereigns and tilted them in my hand, letting them clink together. They were heavy—gold coins, nearly an inch in diameter. It had taken Roger and Bree four days in London, going from one rare-coin dealer to the next, to assemble the small fortune gleaming in the lamplight before me.

“You know, it’s funny; these coins are worth a lot more now than their face value,” I said, picking up a golden guinea, “but in terms of what they’ll buy, they were worth then just about as much as now. This is six months’ income for a small farmer.”

“I was forgetting,” Roger said, “that you know all this already; what things were worth and how they were sold.”

“It’s easy to forget,” I said, eyes still on the money. From the corner of my vision, I saw Bree draw suddenly close to Roger, and his hand go out to her automatically.

I took a deep breath and looked up from the tiny heaps of gold and silver. “Well, that’s that. Shall we go and have some dinner?”

Dinner—at one of the pubs on River Street—was a largely silent affair. Claire and Brianna sat side by side on the banquette, with Roger opposite. They barely looked at each other while they ate, but Roger could see the frequent small touches, the tiny nudges of shoulder and hip, the brushing of fingers that went on.

How would he manage, he wondered to himself. If it were his choice, or his parent? Separation came to all families, but most often it was death that intervened, to sever the ties between parent and child. It was the element of choice here that made it so difficult—not that it could ever be easy, he thought, forking in a mouthful of hot shepherd’s pie.

As they rose to leave after supper, he laid a hand on Claire’s arm.

“Just for the sake of nothing,” he said, “will you try something for me?”

“I expect so,” she said, smiling. “What is it?”

He nodded at the door. “Close your eyes and step out of the door. When you’re outside, open them. Then come in and tell me what’s the first thing you saw.”

Her mouth twitched with amusement. “All right. We’ll hope the first thing I see isn’t a policeman, or you’ll have to come bail me out of jail for being drunk and disorderly.”

“So long as it isn’t a duck.”

Claire gave him a queer look, but obediently turned toward the door of the pub and closed her eyes. Brianna watched her mother disappear through the door, hand extended to the paneling of the entry to keep her bearings. She turned to Roger, copper eyebrows raised.

“What are you up to, Roger? Ducks?”

“Nothing,” he said, eyes still fixed on the empty entrance. “It’s just an old custom. Samhain—Hallowe’en, you know?—that’s one of the feasts when it was customary to try to divine the future. And one of the ways of divination was to walk to the end of the house, and then step outside with your eyes closed. The first thing you see when you open them is an omen for the near future.”

“Ducks are bad omens?”

“Depends what they’re doing,” he said absently, still watching the entry. “If they have their heads under their wings, that’s death. What’s keeping her?”

“Maybe we’d better go see,” Brianna said nervously. “I don’t expect there are a lot of sleeping ducks in downtown Inverness, but with the river so close…”

Just as they reached the door, though, its stained-glass window darkened and it swung open to reveal Claire, looking mildly flustered.

“You’ll never believe what’s the first thing I saw,” she said, laughing as she saw them.

“Not a duck with its head under its wing?” asked Brianna anxiously.

“No,” her mother said, giving her a puzzled look. “A policeman. I turned to the right and ran smack into him.”

“He was coming toward you, then?” Roger felt inexplicably relieved.

“Well, he was until I ran into him,” she said. “Then we waltzed round the pavement a bit, clutching each other.” She laughed, looking flushed and pretty, with her brown-sherry eyes sparkling in the amber pub lights. “Why?”

“That’s good luck,” Roger said, smiling. “To see a man coming toward you on Samhain means you’ll find what you seek.”

“Does it?” Her eyes rested on his, quizzical, then her face lit with a sudden smile. “Wonderful! Let’s go home and celebrate, shall we?”

The anxious constraint that had lain on them over dinner seemed suddenly to have vanished, to be replaced with a sort of manic excitement, and they laughed and joked on the trip back to the manse, where they drank toasts to past and future—Loch Minneaig Scotch for Claire and Roger, Coca-Cola for Brianna—and talked excitedly about the plans for the next day. Brianna had insisted on carving a pumpkin into a jack-o’-lantern, which sat on the sideboard, grinning benevolently on the proceedings.

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