I Hear No Music But the Sound of Drums 1 страница


HOME FOR CHRISTMAS

WHAT WOULD YOU HAVE DONE?” Brianna asked. She turned over, moving carefully in the narrow confines of Mr. Wemyss’s bed, and parked her chin comfortably in the hollow of Roger’s shoulder.

“What would I have done about what?” Warm through for the first time in weeks, filled to bursting with one of Mrs. Bug’s dinners, and having finally achieved the nirvana of an hour’s privacy with his wife, Roger felt pleasantly drowsy and detached.

“About Isaiah Morton and Alicia Brown.”

Roger gave a jaw-cracking yawn and settled himself deeper, the corn-shuck mattress rustling loudly under them. He supposed the whole house had heard them at it earlier, and he didn’t really care. She’d washed her hair in honor of his homecoming; waves of it spread over his chest, a silky rich gleam in the dim glow of the hearth. It was only late afternoon, but the shutters were closed, giving the pleasant illusion that they were inside a small private cave.

“I don’t know. What your Da did, I suppose; what else? Your hair smells great.” He smoothed a lock of it around his finger, admiring the shimmer.

“Thanks. I used some of that stuff Mama makes with walnut oil and marigolds. What about Isaiah’s poor wife in Granite Falls, though?”

“What about her? Jamie couldn’t force Morton to go home to her—assuming that she wants him back,” he added logically. “And the girl—Alicia—was evidently more than willing; your father couldn’t very well have made a kerfuffle about Morton leaving with her, unless he wanted the man dead. If the Browns had found Morton there, they would have killed him on the spot and nailed his hide to their barn door.”

He spoke with conviction, remembering the pointed guns that had greeted him in Brownsville. He smoothed the hair behind her ear, and lifted his head far enough to kiss her between the eyebrows. He’d been imagining that for days, that smooth pale space between the heavy brows. It seemed like a tiny oasis among the vivid danger of her features; the flash of eyes and blade of nose were more than attractive, to say nothing of a mobile brow and a wide mouth that spoke its mind as much by its shape as by its words—but not peaceful. After the last three weeks, he was in a mood for peace.

He sank back on the pillow, tracing the stern arch of one ruddy brow with a finger.

“I think the best he could do under the circumstances was to give the young lovers a bit of room to get safe away,” he said. “And they did. By the morning, the snow was already melting to mud, and with all the trampling, you couldn’t have told whether a regiment of bears had marched through, let alone which way they were going.”

He spoke with feeling; the weather had turned suddenly to a warm thaw, and the militia had returned to their homes in good spirits, but muddy to the eyebrows.

Brianna sighed, her breath raising a pleasant gooseflesh across his chest. She lifted her own head a little, peering in interest.

“What? Have I got filth stuck to me still?” He had washed, but in haste, eager to eat, more eager to get to bed.

“No. I just like it when you get goose bumps. All the hairs on your chest stand up, and so do your nipples.” She flicked one of the objects in question lightly with a fingernail, and a fresh wave of gooseflesh raced across his chest for her entertainment. He arched his back a little, then relaxed. No, he’d have to go downstairs soon, to deal with the evening chores; he’d heard Jamie go out already.

Time for a change of subject. He breathed deep, then lifted his head from the pillow, sniffing with interest at the rich aroma seeping through the floor from the kitchen below.

“What’s that cooking?”

“A goose. Or geese—a dozen of them.” He thought he caught an odd undertone in her voice, a faint tinge of regret.

“Well, that’s a treat,” he said, running a lingering hand down the length of her back. A pale gold down covered her back and shoulders, invisible save when there was candlelight behind her, as there was now. “What’s the occasion? For our homecoming?”

She lifted her head from his chest and gave him what he privately classified as A Look.

“For Christmas,” she said.

“What?” He groped blankly, trying to count the days, but the events of the last three weeks had completely erased his mental calendar. “When?”

“Tomorrow, idiot,” she said with exaggerated patience. She leaned over and did something unspeakably erotic to his nipple, then heaved herself up in a rustle of bedclothes, leaving him bereft of blissful warmth and exposed to chilly drafts.

“Didn’t you see all the greenery downstairs when you came in? Lizzie and I made the little Chisholm monsters go out with us to cut evergreens; we’ve been making wreaths and garlands for the last three days.” The words were somewhat muffled, as she wormed her way into her shift, but he thought she sounded only incredulous, rather than angry. He could hope.

He sat up and swung his feet down, toes curling as they came in contact with the cold boards of the floor. His own cabin had a braided rug by the bed—but his cabin was full of Chisholms at the moment, or so he was informed. He rubbed a hand through his hair, groping for inspiration, and found it.

“I didn’t see anything when I came in but you.”

That was the simple truth, and evidently honesty was the best policy. Her head popped through the neckhole of her shift and she gave him a narrow look, which faded into a slow smile as she saw the evident sincerity stamped on his features.

She came over to the bed and put her arms around him, enveloping his head in a smother of marigolds, butter-soft linen, and . . . milk. Oh, aye. The kid would be needing to eat again soon. Resigned, he put his arms round the swell of her hips and rested his head between her breasts for the few moments that were his own meager share of that abundance.

“Sorry,” he said, words muffled in her warmth. “I’d forgotten it entirely. I’d have brought you and Jem something, if I’d thought.”

“Like what? A piece of Isaiah Morton’s hide?” She laughed and let go, straightening up to smooth her hair. She was wearing the bracelet he’d given her on an earlier Christmas Eve; the hearthlight glinted off the silver as she lifted her arm.

“Aye, ye could cover a book in it, I suppose. Or make a pair of wee boots for Jem.” It had been a long ride, men and horses pushing past tiredness, eager for home. He felt boneless, and would have asked no better present himself than to go back to bed with her, pressed tight together in warmth, to drift toward the inviting depths of deep black sleep and amorous dreams. Duty called, though; he yawned, blinked, and heaved himself up.

“Are the geese for our supper tonight, then?” he asked, squatting to poke through the discarded pile of mud-caked garments he’d shucked earlier. He might have a clean shirt somewhere, but with the Chisholms in his cabin, and Bree and Jem temporarily lodged here in the Wemysses’ room, he had no idea where his own things were. No sense to put on something clean only to go and muck out a byre and feed horses, anyway. He’d shave and change before supper.

“Uh-huh. Mrs. Bug has half a hog barbecuing in a pit outside for tomorrow’s Christmas dinner. I shot the geese yesterday, though, and she wanted to use them fresh. We were hoping you guys would be home in time.”

He glanced at her, picking up the same undertone in her voice.

“Ye don’t care for goose?” he asked. She looked down at him, with an odd expression.

“I’ve never eaten one,” she answered. “Roger?”

“Aye?”

“I was just wondering. I wanted to ask if you knew . . .”

“If I know what?”

He was moving slowly, still wrapped in a pleasant fog of exhaustion and lovemaking. She had put her gown on, brushed her hair, and put it up neatly in a thick coil on her neck, all in the time it had taken him to disentangle his stockings and breeches. He shook the breeks absentmindedly, sending a shower of dried mud fragments pattering over the floor.

“Don’t do that! What’s the matter with you?” Flushed with sudden annoyance, she snatched the breeks away from him. She thrust open the shutters and leaned out, flapping the garment violently over the sill. She jerked the shaken breeks back in and threw them in his general direction; he dived to catch them.

“Hey. What’s the matter with you?”

“Matter? You shower dirt all over the floor and you think there’s something wrong with me?”

“Sorry. I didn’t think—”

She made a noise deep in her throat. It wasn’t very loud, but it was threatening. Obeying a deep-seated masculine reflex, he shoved a leg into his breeches. Whatever might be happening, he’d rather meet it with his trousers on. He jerked them up, talking fast.

“Look, I’m sorry I didn’t think of it being Christmas. It was—there were important things to deal with; I lost track. I’ll make it up to ye. Perhaps when we go to Cross Creek for your aunt’s wedding. I could—”

“The hell with Christmas!”

“What?” He stopped, breeks half-buttoned. It was winter dusk, and dark in the room, but even by candlelight, he could see the color rising in her face.

“The hell with Christmas, the hell with Cross Creek—and the fucking hell with you, too!” She punctuated this last with a wooden soap dish from the washstand, which whizzed past his left ear and smacked into the wall behind him.

“Now just a fucking minute!”

“Don’t you use language like that to me!”

“But you—”

“You and your ‘important things’!” Her hand tightened on the big china ewer and he tensed, ready to duck, but she thought better of it and her hand relaxed.

“I’ve spent the last month here, up to my eyeballs in laundry and baby shit and screeching women and horrible children while you’re out doing ‘important things’ and you come marching in here covered in mud and tromp all over the clean floors without even noticing they were clean in the first place! Do you have any idea what a pain it is to scrub pine floors on your hands and knees? With lye soap!” She waved her hands at him in accusation, but too quickly for him to see whether they were covered with gaping sores, rotted off at the wrist, or merely reddened.

“. . . And you don’t even want to look at your son or hear anything about him—he’s learned to crawl, and I wanted to show you, but all you wanted was to go to bed, and you didn’t even bother to shave first . . .”

Roger felt as though he’d walked into the blades of a large, rapidly whirling fan. He scratched at his short beard, feeling guilty.

“I . . . ah . . . thought you wanted to—”

“I did!” She stamped her foot, raising a small cloud of dust from the disintegrated mud. “That hasn’t got anything to do with it!”

“All right.” He bent to get his shirt, keeping one eye warily on her. “So—you’re mad because I didn’t notice you’d washed the floor, is that it?”

“No!”

“No,” he repeated. He took a deep breath and tried again. “So, it is that I forgot it’s Christmas?”

“No!”

“You’re angry that I wanted to make love to you, even though you wanted to do it, too?”

“NO! Would you just shut up?”

Roger was strongly tempted to accede to this request, but a dogged urge to get to the bottom of things made him push on.

“But I don’t understand why—”

“I know you don’t! That’s the problem!”

She spun on her bare heel and stomped over to the chest that stood by the window. She flung back the lid with a bang, and began rummaging, with a series of small snorts and growls.

He opened his mouth, shut it again, and jerked the dirty shirt on over his head. He felt simultaneously irritated and guilty, a bad combination. He finished dressing in an atmosphere of charged silence, considering—and rejecting—possible remarks and questions, all of which seemed likely to inflame the situation further.

She had found her stockings, yanked them on, and gartered them with small savage movements, then thrust her feet into a pair of battered clogs. Now she stood at the open window, drawing deep breaths of air as though she were about to perform a set of RAF exercises.

His inclination was to escape while she wasn’t looking, but he couldn’t bring himself simply to leave, with something wrong—whatever in God’s name it was—between them. He could still feel the sense of closeness that they had shared, less than a quarter of an hour before, and couldn’t bring himself to believe that it had simply evaporated into thin air.

He walked up behind her, slowly, and put his hands on her shoulders. She didn’t whirl round and try either to stamp on his foot or to knee him in the stones, so he took the risk of kissing her lightly on the back of the neck.

“You were going to ask me something about geese.”

She took a deep breath and let it out in a sigh, relaxing just a little against him. Her anger seemed to have vanished as quickly as it had appeared, leaving him baffled but grateful. He put his arms round her waist, and pulled her back against him.

“Yesterday,” she said, “Mrs. Aberfeldy burnt the biscuits for breakfast.”

“Oh. Aye?”

“Mrs. Bug accused her of being too taken up with her daughter’s hair ribbons to pay attention to what she was doing. And what was she doing—Mrs. Bug said—putting blueberries into buttermilk biscuits in the first place?”

“Why shouldn’t one put blueberries into buttermilk biscuits?”

“I have no idea. But Mrs. Bug doesn’t think you should. And then Billy MacLeod fell down the stairs, and his mother was nowhere to be found—she went to the privy and got stuck—and—”

“She what?” Mrs. MacLeod was short and rather stout, but had a well-defined rear aspect, with an arse like two cannonballs in a sack. It was all too easy to envision such an accident befalling her, and Roger felt laughter gurgle up through his chest. He tried manfully to stifle it, but it emerged through his nose in a painful snort.

“We shouldn’t laugh. She had splinters.” Despite this rebuke, Brianna herself was quivering against him, tremors of mirth fracturing her voice.

“Christ. What then?”

“Well, Billy was screaming—he didn’t break anything, but he banged his head pretty hard—and Mrs. Bug shot out of the kitchen with her broom, hollering because she thought we were being attacked by Indians, and Mrs. Chisholm went to find Mrs. MacLeod and started yelling from the privy, and . . . well, anyway, the geese came over in the middle of all of it, and Mrs. Bug looked up at the ceiling with her eyes popping, then said ‘Geese!’ so loud that everybody stopped yelling, and she ran into Da’s study and came back with the fowling piece and shoved it at me.”

She had relaxed a little with the telling. She snorted, and settled back against him.

“I was so mad, I just really wanted to kill something. And there were a lot of them—the geese—you could hear them calling all across the sky.”

He had seen the geese, too. Black V-shapes, flexing in the winds of the upper air, arrowing their way through the winter sky. Heard them calling, with a strange feeling of loneliness at the heart, and wished she were beside him there.

Everyone had rushed out to watch; the wild Chisholm children and a couple of the half-wild Chisholm dogs went scampering through the trees with whoops and barks of excitement, to retrieve the fallen birds, while Brianna shot and reloaded, as quickly as she could.

“One of the dogs got one, and Toby tried to wrestle it away, and the dog bit him, and he was running around and around the yard screaming that his finger was bitten off, and there was blood all over him, and nobody could make him stop so we could see whether it was, and Mama wasn’t here, and Mrs. Chisholm was down by the creek with the twins . . .”

She was stiffening again, and he could see the hot blood rising once more, flushing the back of her neck. He tightened his hold on her waist.

“Was his finger bitten off, then?”

She stopped and took a deep breath, then looked round at him over her shoulder, the color fading slightly from her face.

“No. The skin wasn’t even broken; it was goose blood.”

“Well, so. Ye did well, didn’t you? The larder full, not a finger lost—and the house still standing.”

He’d meant it as a joke, and was surprised to feel her heave a deep sigh, a little of the tension going out of her.

“Yes,” she said, and her voice held a note of undeniable satisfaction. “I did. All present and accounted for—and everybody fed. With minimal bloodshed,” she added.

“Well, it’s true what they say about omelettes and eggs, aye?” He laughed and bent to kiss her, then remembered his beard. “Oh—sorry. I’ll go and shave, shall I?”

“No, don’t.” She turned as he released her, and brushed a fingertip across his jaw. “I sort of like it. Besides, you can do that later, can’t you?”

“Aye, I can.” He bent his head and kissed her gently, but thoroughly. Was that it, then? She’d only wanted him to say that she’d done well, left on her own to run the place? He was thinking she deserved it, if so. He’d known she hadn’t been only sitting by the hearth singing cradle songs to Jemmy in his absence—but he hadn’t envisioned the gory details.

The smell of her hair and the musk of her body was all round him, but breathing deep to get more of it, he realized that the room was fragrant with juniper and balsam, too, and the mellow scent of beeswax candles. Not just one; there were three of them, set in candlesticks about the room. Normally, she would have lit a rush dip, saving the valuable candles, but the small room glowed now with soft gold light, and he realized that the bloom of it had lit them through their lovemaking, leaving him with memories of russet and ivory and the gold down that covered her like a lion’s pelt, the shadowed crimson and purple of her secret places, the dark of his skin on the paleness of hers—memories that glowed vivid against white sheets in his mind.

The floor was clean—or had been—its white-pine boards scrubbed, and the corners strewn with dried rosemary. He could see the tumbled bed past her ear, and realized that she’d made it up with fresh linen and a new quilt. She’d taken trouble for his homecoming. And he’d come barging in, brimming with his adventures, expecting praise for the feat of coming back alive, and seeing none of it—blind to everything in his urgent need to get his hands on her and feel her body under his.

“Hey,” he said softly in her ear. “I may be a fool, but I love you, aye?”

She sighed deeply, her breasts pushing against his bare chest, warm even through the cloth of shift and gown. They were firm; filling with milk, but not yet hard.

“Yeah, you are,” she said frankly, “but I love you too. And I’m glad you’re home.”

He laughed and let go. There was a branch of juniper tacked above the window, heavy with its clouded blue-green berries. He reached up and broke off a sprig, kissed it, and tucked it into the neck of her gown, between her breasts, as a token of truce—and apology.

“Merry Christmas. Now, what was it about the geese?”

She put a hand to the juniper sprig, a half-smile growing, then fading.

“Oh. Well. It’s not important. It’s just . . .” He followed the direction of her eyes, turned, and saw the sheet of paper, propped up behind the basin on the washstand.

It was a drawing, done in charcoal; wild geese against a stormy sky, striving through the air above a lash of wind-tossed trees. It was a wonderful drawing, and looking at it gave him the same odd feeling at the heart that hearing the geese themselves had done—half joy, half pain.

“Merry Christmas,” Brianna said softly, behind him. She came to stand beside him, wrapping a hand around his arm.

“Thanks. It’s . . . God, Bree, you’re good.” She was. He bent and kissed her, hard, needing to do something to lessen the sense of yearning that haunted the paper in his hand.

“Look at the other one.” She pulled a little away from him, still holding his arm, and nodded at the washstand.

He hadn’t realized there were two. The other drawing had been behind the first.

She was good. Good enough to chill the blood at his heart. The second drawing was in charcoal, too, the same stark blacks and whites and grays. In the first, she had seen the wildness of the sky, and put it down: yearning and courage, effort enduring in faith amid the emptiness of air and storm. In this, she had seen stillness.

It was a dead goose, hung by the feet, its wings half-spread. Neck limp and beak half-open, as though even in death it sought flight and the loud-calling company of its companions. The lines of it were grace, the details of feather, beak, and empty eyes exquisite. He had never seen anything so beautiful, nor so desolate, in his life.

“I drew that last night,” she said quietly. “Everybody was in bed, but I couldn’t sleep.”

She had taken a candlestick and prowled the crowded house, restless, going outside at last in spite of the cold, seeking solitude, if not rest, in the chill dark of the outbuildings. And in the smokeshed, by the light of the embers there, had been struck by the beauty of the hanging geese, their clear plumage black and white against the sooty wall.

“I checked to be sure Jemmy was sound asleep, then brought my sketch box down and drew, until my fingers were too cold to hold the charcoal anymore. That was the best one.” She nodded at the picture, her eyes remote.

For the first time, he saw the blue shadows in her face, and imagined her by candlelight, up late at night and all alone, drawing dead geese. He would have taken her in his arms then, but she turned away, going to the window, where the shutters had begun to bang.

The thaw had faded, to be followed by a freezing wind that stripped the last sere leaves from the trees and sent acorns and chestnut hulls sailing through the air to rattle on the roof like buckshot. He followed her, reached past her to draw in the shutters and fasten them against the bitter wind.

“Da told me stories, while I was—while I was waiting for Jemmy to be born. I wasn’t paying close attention”—the corner of her mouth quirked with wryness—“but a bit here and there stuck with me.”

She turned around then, and leaned against the shutters, hands gripping the sill behind her.

“He said when a hunter kills a greylag goose, he must wait by the body, because the greylag mate for life, and if you kill only one, the other will mourn itself to death. So you wait, and when the mate comes, you kill it, too.”

Her eyes were dark on his, but the candle flames struck glints of blue in their depths.

“What I wondered is—are all geese like that? Not only greylags?” She nodded at the pictures.

He touched her, and cleared his throat. He wanted to comfort her, but not at the price of an easy lie.

“Maybe so. I don’t know for sure, though. You’re worried, then, about the mates of the birds you shot?”

The soft pale lips pressed tight together, then relaxed.

“Not worried. Just . . . I couldn’t help thinking about it, afterward. About them, flying on . . . alone. You were gone—I couldn’t help thinking—I mean, I knew you were all right, this time, but next time, you might not come—well, never mind. It’s just silly. Don’t worry about it.”

She stood up, and would have pushed past him into the room, but he put his arms around her and held her, close so she couldn’t see his face.

He knew that she didn’t absolutely require him—not to make hay, to plow, to hunt for her. If needs must, she could do those things herself—or find another man. And yet . . . the wild geese said she needed him—would mourn his loss if it came. Perhaps forever. In his present vulnerable mood, that knowledge seemed a great gift.

“Geese,” he said at last, his voice half-muffled in her hair. “The next-door neighbors kept geese, when I was a wee lad. Big white buggers. Six of them; they went round in a gang, all high-nosed and honking. Terrorized dogs and children and folk that passed by on the street.”

“Did they terrorize you?” Her breath tickled warm on his collarbone.

“Oh, aye. All the time. When we played in the street, they’d rush out honking and peck at us and beat us with their wings. When I wanted to go out into the back garden to play with a mate, Mrs. Graham would have to come, too, to drive the bastards off to their own yard with a broomstick.

“Then the milkman came by one morning while the geese were in their front garden. They went for him, and he ran for his float—and his horse took fright at all the honking and screeching, and stamped two of the geese flatter than bannocks. The kids on the street were all thrilled.”

She was laughing against his shoulder, half-shocked but amused.

“What happened then?”

“Mrs. Graham took them and plucked them, and we had goose pie for a week,” he said matter-of-factly. He straightened up and smiled at her. She was flushed and rosy. “That’s what I ken about geese—they’re wicked buggers, but they taste great.”

He turned and plucked his mud-stained coat from the floor.

“So, then. Let me help your Da with the chores, and then I want to see how ye’ve taught my son to crawl.”


CHARMS

I TOUCHED A FINGER to the gleaming white surface, then rubbed my fingers together appraisingly.

“There is absolutely nothing greasier than goose grease,” I said with approval. I wiped my fingers on my apron and took up a large spoon.

“Nothing better for a nice pastry crust,” Mrs. Bug agreed. She stood on her tiptoes, watching jealously as I divided the soft white fat, ladling it from the kettle into two large stone crocks; one for the kitchen, one for my surgery.

“A nice venison pie we’ll have for Hogmanay,” she said, eyes narrowing as she envisioned the prospect. “And the haggis to follow, wi’ cullen skink, and a bit o’ corn crowdie . . . and a great raisin tart wi’ jam and clotted cream for sweeties!”

“Wonderful,” I murmured. My own immediate plans for the goose grease involved a salve of wild sarsaparilla and bittersweet for burns and abrasions, a mentholated ointment for stuffy noses and chest congestion, and something soothing and pleasantly scented for diaper rash—perhaps a lavender infusion, with the juice of crushed jewelweed leaves.

I glanced down in search of Jemmy; he had learned to crawl only a few days before, but was already capable of an astonishing rate of speed, particularly when no one was looking. He was sitting peaceably enough in the corner, though, gnawing intently at the wooden horse Jamie had carved for him as a Christmas present.

Catholic as many of them were—and nominally Christian as they all were—Highland Scots regarded Christmas primarily as a religious observance, rather than a major festive occasion. Lacking priest or minister, the day was spent much like a Sunday, though with a particularly lavish meal to mark the occasion, and the exchange of small gifts. My own gift from Jamie had been the wooden ladle I was presently using, its handle carved with the image of a mint leaf; I had given him a new shirt with a ruffle at the throat for ceremonial occasions, his old one having worn quite away at the seams.

With a certain amount of forethought, Mrs. Bug, Brianna, Marsali, Lizzie, and I had made up an enormous quantity of molasses toffee, which we had distributed as a Christmas treat to all the children within earshot. Whatever it might do to their teeth, it had the beneficial effect of gluing their mouths shut for long periods, and in consequence, the adults had enjoyed a peaceful Christmas. Even Germain had been reduced to a sort of tuneful gargle.

Hogmanay was a different kettle of fish, though. God knew what feverish pagan roots the Scottish New Year’s celebration sprang from, but there was a reason why I wanted to have a good lot of medicinal preparations made up in advance—the same reason Jamie was now up at the whisky spring, deciding which barrels were sufficiently aged as not to poison anyone.

The goose grease disposed of, there was a good bit of dark broth left in the bottom of the kettle, aswirl with bits of crackled skin and shreds of meat. I saw Mrs. Bug eyeing it, visions of gravy dancing in her brain.

“Half,” I said sternly, reaching for a large bottle.

She didn’t argue; merely shrugged her rounded shoulders and settled back on her stool in resignation.

“Whatever will ye do with that, though?” she asked curiously, watching as I put a square of muslin over the neck of the bottle, in order to strain the broth. “Grease, aye, it’s a wonder for the salves. And broth’s good for a body wi’ the ague or a wabbly wame, to be sure—but it willna keep, ye know.” One sketchy eyebrow lifted at me in warning, in case I hadn’t actually known that. “Leave it more than a day or two, and it’ll be blue with the mold.”

“Well, I do hope so,” I told her, ladling broth into the muslin square. “I’ve just set out a batch of bread to mold, and I want to see if it will grow on the broth, too.”


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