Author: P Hana

Page 56


“Dinna be afraid,” he said softly. “There’s the two of us now.”

We might have gone on standing there gazing at each other indefinitely, had the shop bell over the door not rung. I let go of Jamie and looked around sharply, to see a small, wiry man with coarse dark hair standing in the door, mouth agape, holding a small parcel in one hand.

“Oh, there ye are, Geordie! What’s kept ye?” Jamie said.

Geordie said nothing, but his eyes traveled dubiously over his employer, standing bare-legged in his shirt in the middle of the shop, his breeches, shoes, and stockings discarded on the floor, and me in his arms, with my gown all crumpled and my hair coming down. Geordie’s narrow face creased into a censorious frown.

“I quit,” he said, in the rich tones of the West Highlands. “The printing’s one thing—I’m wi’ ye there, and ye’ll no think otherwise—but I’m Free Church and my daddy before me and my grandsire before him. Workin’ for a Papist is one thing—the Pope’s coin’s as good as any, aye?—but workin’ for an immoral Papist is another. Do as ye like wi’ your own soul, man, but if it’s come to orgies in the shop, it’s come too far, that’s what I say. I quit!”

He placed the package precisely in the center of the counter, spun on his heel and stalked toward the door. Outside, the Town Clock on the Tolbooth began to strike. Geordie turned in the doorway to glare accusingly at us.

“And it not even noon yet!” he said. The shop door slammed behind him.

Jamie stared after him for a moment, then sank slowly down onto the floor again, laughing so hard, the tears came to his eyes.

“And it’s not even noon yet!” he repeated, wiping the tears off his cheeks. “Oh, God, Geordie!” He rocked back and forth, grasping his knees with both hands.

I couldn’t help laughing myself, though I was rather worried.

“I didn’t mean to cause you trouble,” I said. “Will he come back, do you think?”

He sniffed and wiped his face carelessly on the tail of his shirt.

“Oh, aye. He lives just across the way, in Wickham Wynd. I’ll go and see him in a bit, and…and explain,” he said. He looked at me, realization dawning, and added, “God knows how!” It looked for a minute as though he might start laughing again, but he mastered the impulse and stood up.

“Have you got another pair of breeches?” I asked, picking up the discarded ones and draping them across the counter to dry.

“Aye, I have—upstairs. Wait a bit, though.” He snaked a long arm into the cupboard beneath the counter, and came out with a neatly lettered notice that said GONE OUT. Attaching this to the outside of the door, and firmly bolting the inside, he turned to me.

“Will ye step upstairs wi’ me?” he said. He crooked an arm invitingly, eyes sparkling. “If ye dinna think it immoral?”

“Why not?” I said. The impulse to explode in laughter was just below the surface, sparkling in my blood like champagne. “We’re married, aren’t we?”

The upstairs was divided into two rooms, one on either side of the landing, and a small privy closet just off the landing itself. The back room was plainly devoted to storage for the printing business; the door was propped open, and I could see wooden crates filled with books, towering bundles of pamphlets neatly tied with twine, barrels of alcohol and powdered ink, and a jumble of odd-looking hardware that I assumed must be spare parts for a printing press.

The front room was spare as a monk’s cell. There was a chest of drawers with a pottery candlestick on it, a washstand, a stool, and a narrow cot, little more than a camp bed. I let out my breath when I saw it, only then realizing that I had been holding it. He slept alone.

A quick glance around confirmed that there was no sign of a feminine presence in the room, and my heart began to beat with a normal rhythm again. Plainly no one lived here but Jamie; he had pushed aside the curtain that blocked off a corner of the room, and the row of pegs revealed there supported no more than a couple of shirts, a coat and long waistcoat in sober gray, a gray wool cloak, and the spare pair of breeches he had come to fetch.

He had his back turned to me as he tucked in his shirt and fastened the new breeches, but I could see the self-consciousness in the tense line of his shoulders. I could feel a similar tension in the back of my own neck. Given a moment to recover from the shock of seeing each other, we were both stricken now with shyness. I saw his shoulders straighten and then he turned around to face me. The hysterical laughter had left us, and the tears, though his face still showed the marks of so much sudden feeling, and I knew mine did, too.

“It’s verra fine to see ye, Claire,” he said softly. “I thought I never…well.” He shrugged slightly, as though to ease the tightness of the linen shirt across his shoulders. He swallowed, then met my eyes directly.

“The child?” he said. Everything he felt was evident on his face; urgent hope, desperate fear, and the struggle to contain both.

I smiled at him, and put out my hand. “Come here.”

I had thought long and hard about what I might bring with me, should my journey through the stones succeed. Given my previous brush with accusations of witchcraft, I had been very careful. But there was one thing I had had to bring, no matter what the consequences might be if anyone saw them.

I pulled him down to sit beside me on the cot, and pulled out of my pocket the small rectangular package I had done up with such care in Boston. I undid its waterproof wrapping, and thrust its contents into his hands. “There,” I said.

He took them from me, gingerly, like one handling an unknown and possibly dangerous substance. His big hands framed the photographs for a moment, holding them confined. Brianna’s round newborn face was oblivious between his fingers, tiny fists curled on her blanket, slanted eyes closed in the new exhaustion of existence, her small mouth slightly open in sleep.

I looked up at his face; it was absolutely blank with shock. He held the pictures close to his chest, unmoving, wide-eyed and staring as though he had just been transfixed by a crossbow bolt through the heart—as I supposed he had.

“Your daughter sent you this,” I said. I turned his blank face toward me and gently kissed him on the mouth. That broke the trance; he blinked and his face came to life again.

“My…she…” His voice was hoarse with shock. “Daughter. My daughter. She…knows?”

“She does. Look at the rest.” I slid the first picture from his grasp, revealing the snapshot of Brianna, uproariously festooned with the icing of her first birthday cake, a four-toothed smile of fiendish triumph on her face as she waved a new plush rabbit overhead.

Jamie made a small inarticulate sound, and his fingers loosened. I took the small stack of photographs from him and gave them back, one at a time.

Brianna at two, stubby in her snowsuit, cheeks round and flushed as apples, feathery hair wisping from under her hood.

Bree at four, hair a smooth bell-shaped gleam as she sat, one ankle propped on the opposite knee as she smiled for the photographer, proper and poised in a white pinafore.

At five, in proud possession of her first lunchbox, waiting to board the school bus to kindergarten.

“She wouldn’t let me go with her; she wanted to go alone. She’s very b-brave, not afraid of anything…” I felt half-choked as I explained, displayed, pointed to the changing images that fell from his hands and slid down to the floor as he began to snatch each new picture.

“Oh, God!” he said, at the picture of Bree at ten, sitting on the kitchen floor with her arms around Smoky, the big Newfoundland. That one was in color; her hair a brilliant shimmer against the dog’s shiny black coat.

His hands were shaking so badly that he couldn’t hold the pictures anymore; I had to show him the last few—Bree full-grown, laughing at a string of fish she’d caught; standing at a window in secretive contemplation; red-faced and tousled, leaning on the handle of the ax she had been using to split kindling. These showed her face in all the moods I could capture, always that face, long-nosed and wide-mouthed, with those high, broad, flat Viking cheekbones and slanted eyes—a finer-boned, more delicate version of her father’s, of the man who sat on the cot beside me, mouth working wordlessly, and the tears running soundless down his own cheeks.

He splayed a hand out over the photographs, trembling fingers not quite touching the shiny surfaces, and then he turned and leaned toward me, slowly, with the improbable grace of a tall tree falling. He buried his face in my shoulder and went very quietly and thoroughly to pieces.

I held him to my breast, arms tight around the broad, shaking shoulders, and my own tears fell on his hair, making small dark patches in the ruddy waves. I pressed my cheek against the top of his head, and murmured small incoherent things to him as though he were Brianna. I thought to myself that perhaps it was like surgery—even when an operation is done to repair existing damage, the healing still is painful.

“Her name?” He raised his face at last, wiping his nose on the back of his hand. He picked up the pictures again, gently, as though they might disintegrate at his touch. “What did ye name her?”

“Brianna,” I said proudly.

“Brianna?” he said, frowning at the pictures. “What an awful name for a wee lassie!”

I started back as though struck. “It is not awful!” I snapped. “It’s a beautiful name, and besides you told me to name her that! What do you mean, it’s an awful name?”

“I told ye to name her that?” He blinked.

“You most certainly did! When we—when we—the last time I saw you.” I pressed my lips tightly together so I wouldn’t cry again. After a moment, I had mastered my feelings enough to add, “You told me to name the baby for your father. His name was Brian, wasn’t it?”

“Aye, it was.” A smile seemed to be struggling for dominance of the other emotions on his face. “Aye,” he said. “Aye, you’re right, I did. It’s only—well, I thought it would be a boy, is all.”

“And you’re sorry she wasn’t?” I glared at him, and began snatching up the scattered photographs. His hands on my arms stopped me.

“No,” he said. “No, I’m not sorry. Of course not!” His mouth twitched slightly. “But I willna deny she’s the hell of a shock, Sassenach. So are you.”

I sat still for a moment, looking at him. I had had months to prepare myself for this, and still my knees felt weak and my stomach was clenched in knots. He had been taken completely unawares by my appearance; little wonder if he was reeling a bit under the impact.

“I expect I am. Are you sorry I came?” I asked. I swallowed. “Do—do you want me to go?”

His hands clamped my arms so tightly that I let out a small yelp. Realizing that he was hurting me, he loosened his grip, but kept a firm hold nonetheless. His face had gone quite pale at the suggestion. He took a deep breath and let it out.

“No,” he said, with an approximation of calmness. “I don’t. I—” He broke off abruptly, jaw clamped. “No,” he said again, very definitely.