Joan’s eyelids were fluttering, and she was coughing, turning her head to and fro to escape the smoke, eyes stubbornly closed. Félicité normally slept like the dead, and tonight was no exception; her head wobbled like her rag doll’s when I shook her.
“What? What is it?” Jenny was struggling out of the quilts on her pallet in the corner.
“We’re on fire!” I shouted. “Hurry—help me!”
I heard a cracking noise from the kitchen and a scream from Marsali. I didn’t know what had happened, but in desperation I grabbed Félicité bodily out of bed, still shouting at Joan to wake up, for God’s sake!
I felt the vibration of the ladder against the loft and Jamie was there, snatching Joan up out of the bed.
“The lads, where are the lads?” he asked urgently. In the frantic need to wake the girls, I’d forgotten Germain and Henri-Christian. I looked round in an urgent daze; there was a thin mattress on the floor, flattened and dented by bodies, but no sign of the boys.
“Germain! Joan! Henri-Christian!” Marsali’s face popped up over the edge of the loft, pale with fear. “Félicité!” In an instant, she was with me, taking Félicité from me. The little girl was coughing and whining, starting to cry.
“It’s all right, a nighean, it’s all right; you’re safe, aye?” Marsali was patting her back, coughing herself as the smoke thickened. “Where are the boys?”
Jamie had shoved Jenny onto the ladder and was following her down, Joan draped over his shoulder, small pink feet kicking urgently.
“I’ll find them!” I said, pushing Marsali toward the ladder. “Take Félicité down!”
Something in the shop exploded with a loud whoosh—probably a barrel of ink, made with varnish and lampblack. Marsali gasped, clutched Félicité hard, and scuttled for the ladder. I began rootling madly through the bits of furniture and boxes and bags in the loft, calling the boys’ names between fits of coughing.
The smoke was much worse now; I could barely see. I was kicking my way through blankets, a chamber pot—unfortunately full—and other things, but there was no sign of Henri-Christian or Germain. Even if they’d been overcome by the smoke, surely—
“Sassenach!” Jamie was suddenly there by my elbow. “Come down, come down! The fire’s in the wall; the loft will come down any minute!”
He didn’t wait for argument, but picked me up bodily and swung me down onto the ladder. I missed my footing and slid the last few feet, knees buckling as I hit the floor. The wall in front of me was alight, plaster shattered and the fire moving, glowing along the edges of the laths. Jamie landed beside me with a thud that shook the floor, seized my arm, and we ran for the kitchen.
I heard a rending crack and then a crash that seemed to happen in slow motion, as the supports to the children’s loft gave way and the timbers came down.
“Germain,” I gasped. “Henri—”
“Not here,” Jamie said, and shook with coughing. “Out, we must get out.” The air in the kitchen was a little clearer, but not by much. It was hot enough to sear the hairs inside my nose. Eyes streaming, we made our way across the room to the back door, now standing open, and more or less fell through into the alleyway behind.
Marsali and Jenny were crouched in the privy yard of the house on the other side of the alley, both girls now awake and clinging to them, shrieking.
“Where’s Fergus?” Jamie shouted, pushing me toward Marsali. She pointed toward the burning building, screaming something that I couldn’t hear over the rumble of the fire. Then there was a second’s respite in the noise, and a long, panicked bray split the night air.
“Clarence!” Jamie spun on his heel and ran for the tiny stable, little more than a shed next to the main building. I ran after him, thinking that perhaps the boys had taken refuge there. My bare feet slid on the cobbles, stubbing my toes, but I scarcely noticed, my heart pounding in my ears with fear, lungs laboring to find fresh air.
“Germain!” I heard the shout, faint above the fire, and turned to see a shadow moving just beyond the open door into the kitchen. Smoke was pouring from the door in a thick white column, glowing from the fire beyond. I took a deep gulp of air and dived into the smoke, flailing my arms in a vain effort to dispel enough to see.
One of my flailing arms struck something solid, though, and Fergus collapsed into me, so far overcome with heat and smoke that he couldn’t stand. I grabbed him under the arms and dragged him toward the door with that sort of strength that comes from the absolute determination not to die.
We fell out into the alley, and there were shouts from what proved to be neighbors rushing to help. Hands gripped me and pulled me away. I could hear Fergus, gasping and sobbing, struggling against the helpful hands, desperately croaking his sons’ names.
Through streaming eyes, I saw the stable roof alight and Jamie leading Clarence out, the torn-off sleeve of his shirt wrapped round the mule’s eyes.
And then I heard a shriek that rose above all the noise, fire, neighbors, Clarence’s bray. Marsali stood up straight, eyes and mouth round with horror, looking up.
The loading door that led to the kitchen loft was open, smoke and sparks fuming out, and in the midst of it was Germain, dragging Henri-Christian by the hand.
He shouted something, but no one could hear above the racket. There was a muffled boom from the loft as another cask went, and the fire blazed up suddenly as the stacks of paper caught, silhouetting the boys in the doorway.
“Jump! Jump!” Jamie was shouting, and everyone else in the alley was shouting it, too, people shoving one another in the effort to get underneath, to help. Germain looked wildly to and fro; Henri-Christian was panicked, struggling to go back into the loft. The rope used to raise and lower loads to a waiting wagon was there, almost within reach. Germain saw it and let go of Henri-Christian for an instant to reach for it, hanging on to the edge of the doorframe.
He got it, and a gasp went through the crowd. His fair hair was standing on end in the wind from the fire, surrounding his head like flames, and for an instant I thought it was on fire.
Henri-Christian, dizzy from the smoke, had fallen against the doorframe and was clinging to it. He was too frightened to move; I could see him shaking his head as Germain pulled at him.
“Throw him, Germain! Throw your brother!” Fergus was shouting as loudly as he could, his voice cracking with the strain, and several other voices joined in. “Throw him!”
I saw Germain’s jaw set hard, and he yanked Henri-Christian loose, picked him up, and clutched him with one arm, wrapping the rope around the other.
“No!” Jamie bellowed, seeing it. “Germain, don’t!” But Germain bent his head over his brother’s, and I thought I saw his lips move, saying, “Hold on tight!” And then he stepped out into the air, both hands clinging to the rope, Henri-Christian’s stocky legs wrapped round his ribs.
It happened instantly and yet so slowly. Henri-Christian’s short legs lost their grip. Germain’s grab failed, for the little boy was already falling, arms outstretched, in a half somersault through the smoky air.
He fell straight through the sea of upraised hands, and the sound as his head struck the cobbles was the sound of the end of the world.
WALKING ON COALS
September 19, 1778
EVEN WHEN THE world ends, things bloody go on happening. You just don’t know what to do about them.
Everything smelled of smoke and burning. The air, my hair, Jamie’s skin, the ill-fitting gown someone had given me . . . Even food tasted of ashes. But, then, it would, wouldn’t it? I reflected. It didn’t matter; I couldn’t eat more than the mouthful or two required for politeness.
No one had slept. The printshop had burned to the ground in the small hours; there was nothing to be done but to beat off flying embers and stamp out sparks in an effort to preserve the nearby houses. By a mercy, it hadn’t been a windy night.
The neighbors had given us shelter, clothes, food, and abundant sympathy. None of it seemed real, and I hoped in a vague sort of way that this state of things would continue, even though I knew it couldn’t.
What did seem real, though, was the small collection of vivid images that had been literally seared on my mind during the night. Henri-Christian’s bare feet, dirty-soled and large in comparison with his legs, sticking out from under his mother’s skirt as she cradled him, rocking to and fro, wrapped in a grief too dense for any sound to escape it. Germain, letting go the rope in a frantic attempt to fly after his brother, dropping like a rock into Fergus’s arms. Fergus clutching Germain so hard against him that it must have bruised them both, his hook gleaming against Germain’s soot-streaked back.
The boys had been sleeping on the roof. There was a small trapdoor in the ceiling of the bedroom loft, which no one had remembered in the panic of the fire.
When Germain began finally to talk, sometime toward dawn, he said they had gone out to be cool and to look at the stars. They had fallen asleep and not waked until the slates they lay on began to feel hot—and by then smoke was rolling up through the cracks of the trapdoor. They’d run across the roof to the other side, where a similar trapdoor let them into the printing loft. Half the loft had fallen away and the rest was on fire, but they’d made it through the smoke and rubble to the loading door.
“Why?” he’d cried, passed from one set of arms to another, ignoring all futile words of would-be comfort. “Why didn’t I hold on to him?! He was too little; he couldn’t hold on.”
Only his mother hadn’t embraced him. She held Henri-Christian and wouldn’t let go until daylight came and sheer exhaustion loosened her grasp. Fergus and Jamie had eased the small, chunky body from her grip and taken him away to be washed and made decent for the long business of being dead. Then Marsali had come to find her eldest son and touched him gently in his deadened sleep, sorrowing.
The Reverend Figg had once more come to our aid, a small neat figure in his black suit and high white stock, offering his church in which to hold the wake.
I was sitting in the church now, in midafternoon, alone, on a bench with my back against a wall, smelling smoke and trembling intermittently with echoes of flame and loss.
Marsali was asleep in a neighbor’s bed. I had tucked her in, her daughters curled up on either side of her, Félicité sucking her thumb, round black eyes watchful as those of her rag doll, fortuitously saved from the flames. So few things had survived. I remembered the constant pang of loss after the Big House had burned, reaching for something and realizing that it wasn’t there.
Jenny, worn to the gray-white color of weathered bone, had gone to lie down at the Figgs’ house, her rosary in her hands, the wooden beads sliding smoothly through her fingers as she walked, her lips moving silently; I doubted that she would stop praying, even in her sleep.
People came and went, bringing things. Tables, extra benches, platters of food. Late-summer flowers, roses and jasmine and early blue asters, and for the first time, tears ran down my cheeks at this scented remembrance of the wedding held here so little time before. I pressed a stranger’s handkerchief to my face, though, not wanting anyone to see and feel that they must try to comfort me.
The bench beside me creaked and gave, and I peeped over the edge of my handkerchief to see Jamie beside me, wearing a worn suit that plainly belonged to a chairman—it had a band round the coat sleeve reading “82”—and with his face washed but the whorls of his ears still grimed with soot. He took my hand and held it tight, and I saw the blisters on his fingers, some fresh, some burst and shredded from the efforts to save what could be saved from the fire.
He looked to the front of the church, toward what couldn’t be saved, then sighed and looked down to our clasped hands.
“All right, lass?” His voice was hoarse, his throat raw and soot-choked as my own.
“Yes,” I said. “Have you had anything to eat?” I already knew he hadn’t slept.
He shook his head and leaned back against the wall, closing his eyes, and I felt the relaxation of his body into momentary exhaustion. There were things still to be done, but just for a moment . . . I wanted to dress his hands, but there was nothing to dress them with. I lifted the hand he held and kissed his knuckles.
“What do ye think it’s like when ye die?” he asked suddenly, opening his eyes and looking down at me. His eyes were red as an emery bag.
“I can’t say I’ve really thought about it,” I replied, taken aback. “Why?”
He rubbed two fingers slowly between his brows; I thought from the look of him that his head must ache.
“I only wondered if it’s like this.” He made a brief gesture, encompassing the half-empty room, the well-wishers coming and going in whispers, the mourners sitting, blank-faced and sagging like bags of rubbish, stirring—with a visible effort—only when spoken to. “If ye dinna ken what to do, and ye dinna much want to do anything. Or is it like going to sleep and wakin’ up in a new, fresh place and wanting to go out at once and see what it’s like?”
“According to Father O’Neill, innocents are just in the presence of God immediately. No limbo, no purgatory. Assuming they were properly baptized,” I added. Henri-Christian had indeed been baptized, and as he was not yet seven, the Church held that he lacked sufficient sense of reason to commit sins. Ergo . . .
“I’ve known people in their fifties who had less sense than Henri-Christian,” I said, wiping my nose for the thousandth time. My nostrils were as raw as my eyelids.
“Aye, but they’ve more capacity for causing harm wi’ their foolishness.” A faint smile touched his mouth. “I thought I was dead on Culloden field; did I ever tell ye that?”