Alarms of Struggle and Flight 2 страница

Brianna’s parents were in the parlor with the Wilburs, who turned out to be a nice, elderly couple—what her mother would call a Darby and Joan. They fussed appropriately over her appearance, insisted politely on seeing the portrait, expressed profound admiration for both subject and painter—though blinking slightly at the former—and generally behaved with such kindness that she felt herself relaxing.

She was just on the verge of making her excuses, when Mr. Wilbur took advantage of a lull in the conversation to turn to her, smiling benevolently.

“I understand that congratulations upon your good fortune are in order, Mrs. MacKenzie.”

“Oh? Ah . . . thank you,” she said, uncertain what she was being congratulated for. She glanced at her mother for some clue; Claire grimaced slightly, and glanced at Jamie, who coughed.

“Governor Tryon has granted your husband five thousand acres of land, in the back-country,” he said. His voice was even, almost colorless.

“He has?” She felt momentarily bewildered. “What—why?”

There was a brief stir of embarrassment among the party, with small throat-clearings and marital glances between the Sherstons and the Wilburs.

“Compensation,” her mother said tersely, darting a marital glance of her own at Jamie.

Brianna understood then; no one would be so uncouth as to mention Roger’s accidental hanging openly, but it was much too sensational a story not to have made the rounds of Hillsborough society. She realized suddenly that Mrs. Sherston’s invitation to her parents and Roger had perhaps not been motivated purely by kindness, either. The notoriety of having the hanged man as house-guest would focus the attention of Hillsborough on the Sherstons in a most gratifying way—better, even, than having an unconventional portrait painted.

“I do hope that your husband is much improved, my dear?” Mrs. Wilbur tactfully bridged the conversational gap. “We were so sorry to hear of his injury.”

Injury. That was as circumspect a description of the situation as could well be imagined.

“Yes, he’s much better, thank you,” she said, smiling as briefly as politeness allowed before turning back to her father.

“Does Roger know about this? The land grant?”

He glanced at her, then away, clearing his throat.

“No. I thought perhaps ye might wish to tell him of it yourself.”

Her first response was gratitude; she would have something to say to Roger. It was an awkward business, talking to someone who couldn’t talk back. She stored up conversational fodder during the day; tiny thoughts or events that she could turn into stories, to tell him when she saw him. Her stock of stories ran out all too soon, though, and left her sitting by his bed, groping for inanities.

Her second response was a feeling of annoyance. Why had her father not told her privately, rather than exposing her family’s business to total strangers? Then she caught the subtle interplay of glances between her parents, and realized that her mother had just asked him that, silently—and he had replied, with the briefest flick of the eyes toward Mr. Wilbur, then toward Mrs. Sherston, before the long auburn lashes swept down to hide his gaze.

Better to speak the truth before a reputable witness, his expression said, than to let gossip spread of its own accord.

She had no great regard for her own reputation—“notorious” did not begin to encompass it—but she had grasped enough of the social realities to realize that real damage could be done to her father by scandal. If a false report were to get around, for instance, that Roger had really been a Regulation ring-leader, then Jamie’s own loyalties would be suspect.

She had begun to realize, listening to the talk in the Sherstons’ parlor over the last few weeks, that the Colony was a vast spiderweb. There were innumerable strands of commerce along which a few large spiders—and a number of smaller ones—made their delicate way, always listening for the faint hum of distress made by a fly that had blundered in, always testing for a thinning strand, a broken link.

The smaller entities glided warily along the margins of the web, with an eye out always for the movements of the bigger ones—for spiders were cannibals—and so, she thought, were ambitious men.

Her father’s position was prominent—but by no means so secure as to resist the undermining effects of gossip and suspicion. She and Roger had talked about it before, privately, speculating; the fracture-lines were already there, plain enough to someone who knew what was coming; the strains and tensions that would deepen into sudden chasm—one deep enough to sunder the colonies from England.

Let the strain grow too great, too quickly, let the strands between Fraser’s Ridge and the rest of the Colony fray too far . . . and they might snap, wrapping sticky ends in a thick cocoon round her family and leaving them suspended by a thread—alone, and prey to those who would suck their blood.

You are morbid tonight, she thought to herself, sourly amused at her mind’s choice of imagery. She supposed that painting death would do that.

Neither the Wilburs nor the Sherstons appeared to have noticed her mood; her mother had, and gave her a long, thoughtful look—but said nothing. She exchanged a few more pleasantries, then excused herself to the company.

Her mood was not lightened by the discovery that Jemmy had grown tired of waiting for her to come, and fallen asleep, tear-tracks on his cheeks. She knelt by his crib for a minute, one hand laid lightly on his back, hoping that he might sense her nearness and wake up. His small back rose and fell in the warm rhythm of utter peace, but he didn’t stir. Perspiration glimmered wetly in the creases of his neck.

The heat of the day rose upward, and the second floor of the house was always stifling by evening. The window, of course, was firmly closed, lest the dangerous night airs get in and do the baby harm. Mrs. Sherston had no children of her own, but she knew what precautions must be taken.

In the mountains, Brianna would not have hesitated to open the window. In a heavily-populated town like Hillsborough, full of strangers from the coast, and rife with stagnant horse troughs and dank wells . . .

Weighing the relative danger of malaria-bearing mosquitoes versus that of suffocation, Brianna finally settled for pulling the light quilt off her son and gently removing his gown, leaving him comfortably sprawled on the sheet in nothing but a clout, his soft skin damp and rosy in the dim light.

Sighing, she put out the candle and left, leaving the door ajar so that she could hear if he woke. It was nearly dark now; light welled up through the bannisters from the floor below, but the upstairs hall lay in deep shadow. Mrs. Sherston’s gilded tables and the portraits of Mr. Sherston’s ancestors were no more than spectral shapes in the darkness.

There was a light in Roger’s room; the door was shut, but a fan of soft candle-glow spread across the polished boards beneath it, just catching the edge of the blue hall-runner. She moved toward the door, thoughts of food subsumed in a greater hunger for touch. Her breasts had begun to ache.

A slave was nodding in the corner, hands slack on the knitting that had fallen to her lap. She jerked, startled, as the door opened, and blinked guiltily at Brianna.

Bree looked at once toward the bed, but it was all right; she could hear the hiss and sigh of his breath. She frowned a little at the woman, but made a small gesture of dismissal. The woman clumsily gathered up her half-finished stocking and blundered out, avoiding Brianna’s eye.

Roger lay on his back, eyes closed, a sheet drawn tidily over the sharp angles of his body. He’s so thin, she thought, how did he get so thin, so fast? He could swallow no more than a few spoonsful of soup and Claire’s penicillin broth, but surely two or three days was not enough to leave his bones showing so prominently?

Then she realized that he had likely been thin already, from the stress of campaigning—both her parents were thinner than usual. The prominence of his bones had been disguised by the dreadful swelling of his features; now that that had subsided, his cheekbones were high and gaunt, the hard, graceful line of his jaw once more visible, stark above the white linen of the bandage wrapped around his lacerated throat.

She realized that she was staring at his jaw, appraising the color of the fading bruises. The yellow-green of a healing bruise was different than the delicate gray-green of new death; just as sickly, but withal, a color of life. She took a deep breath, suddenly aware that the window in this room was closed, too, and sweat was trickling down the small of her back, seeping unpleasantly into the crack of her buttocks.

The sound of the sash rising wakened him—he turned his head on the pillow, and smiled faintly when he saw her.

“How are you?” She spoke in a hushed voice, as though in a church. Her own voice always seemed too loud, talking to herself.

He lifted one shoulder in a slight shrug, but mouthed a silent “Okay.” He looked wilted and damp, the dark hair at his temples sweat-soaked.

“It’s awfully hot, isn’t it?” She waved at the window, where warm air—but moving air—came in. He nodded, poking at the collar of his shirt with one bandaged hand. She took the hint and untied it, spreading the slit open as far as it would go, to expose his chest to the breeze.

His nipples were small and neat, the aureoles pinkish-brown under the dark curly hairs. The sight reminded her of her own milk-full breasts, and she had a moment’s insane urge to lift his head, pull down her shift, and put his mouth to her breast. She had an instant’s vivid recall of the moment when he had done that, under the willows at River Run, and a warm rush spread through her, tingling from breasts to womb. Blood rising in her cheeks, she turned to look over the nourishment available on the bedside table.

There was cold meat-broth—spiked with penicillin—in a covered bowl, and a flask of honey-sweetened tea alongside. She took up the spoon and raised a brow inquiringly, her hand hovering over the table.

He grimaced slightly, but nodded at the broth. She picked up the cup and sat down on the stool beside him.

“Open up the stable-door,” she said cheerily, circling the spoon toward his mouth as though he were Jem. “Heeeeere comes the horsie!” He rolled his eyes upward in exasperation.

“When I was little,” she said, ignoring his scowl, “my parents said things like, ‘Here comes the tugboat, open the drawbridge!’ ‘Open the garage, here comes the car!’—but I can’t use those with Jem. Did your mother do cars and airplanes?”

His lips twisted, but finally settled on a reluctant smile. He shook his head and lifted one hand, pointing toward the ceiling. She turned to see a dark spot on the plaster—looking closer, she could see that it was a vagrant bee, blundered in from the garden during the day, somnolent now in the shadows.

“Yeah? Okay, here comes the honeybee,” she said, more softly, slipping the spoon into his mouth. “Bzzz, bzzz, bzzz.”

She couldn’t keep up the attempted air of playfulness, but the atmosphere had relaxed a little. She talked about Jem, who had a new favorite word—“Wagga”—but no one yet had figured out what he meant by it.

“I thought maybe it meant ‘cat,’ but he calls the cat ‘Mow-mow.’” She brushed a drop of sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand, then dipped the spoon again.

“Mrs. Sherston says he should be walking by now,” she said, eyes fixed on his mouth. “Her sister’s children were both walking at a year old, naturally! I asked Mama, though; she says he’s fine. She says kids walk when they’re ready, and it can be any time between ten months and as much as eighteen, but fifteen months is about the usual.”

She had to watch his mouth in order to guide the spoon, but was aware of his eyes, watching her. She wanted to look into them, but was halfway afraid of what she might see in those dark green depths; would it be the Roger she knew, or the silent stranger—the hanged man?

“Oh—I almost forgot.” She interrupted herself in the middle of an account of the Wilburs. She hadn’t forgotten, but hadn’t wanted to blurt the news out right away. “Da spoke to the Governor this afternoon. He—the Governor, I mean—is giving you a land grant. Five thousand acres.” Even as she said it, she realized the absurdity of it. Five thousand acres of wilderness, in exchange for a life almost destroyed. Cancel the “almost,” she thought suddenly, looking at Roger.

He frowned at her in what looked like puzzlement, then shook his head and lay back on the pillow, eyes closing. He lifted his hands and let them fall, as though this was simply too much to be asked to contemplate. Maybe it was.

She stood watching him in silence, but he didn’t open his eyes. There were deep creases where his brows drew together.

Moved by the need to touch him, to bridge the barrier of silence, she traced the shadow of the bruise that lay over his cheekbone, her fingers drifting, barely touching his skin.

She could see the oddly blurred edges of the bruise, could almost see the dark clotted blood beneath the skin, where the capillaries had ruptured. It was beginning to yellow; her mother had told her that the body’s leukocytes would come to the site of an injury, where they gradually broke down the injured cells, thriftily recycling the spilled blood; the changing colors were the result of this cellular housekeeping.

His eyes opened, fixed on her face, his own expression impassive. She knew she looked worried, and tried to smile.

“You don’t look dead,” she said. That broke the impassive facade; his eyebrows twitched upward, and a faint gleam of humor came into his eyes.

“Roger—” At a loss for words, she moved impulsively toward him. He stiffened slightly, hunching instinctively to protect the fragile tube in his throat, but she put her arms around his shoulders, careful, but needing desperately to feel the substance of his flesh.

“I love you,” she whispered, and her hand tightened on the muscle of his arm, urging him to believe it.

She kissed him. His lips were warm and dry, familiar—and yet a feeling of shock ran through her. No air moved against her cheek, no warm breath touched her from his nose or mouth. It was like kissing a mask. Air, damp from the secret depths of his lungs, hissed cool from the amber tube against her neck, like the exhalation from a cave. Gooseflesh ran down her arms and she stepped back, hoping that neither shock nor revulsion showed on her face.

His eyes were closed, squeezed tight shut. The muscle of his jaw bulged; she saw the shift of the shadow there.

“You . . . rest,” she managed, her voice shaky. “I’ll—I’ll see you in the morning.”

She made her way downstairs, barely noticing that the candlestick in the hall was lit now, or that the waiting slave slid silently from the shadows back into the room.

Her hunger had come back, but she didn’t go downstairs in search of food. She had to do something about the unused milk, first. She turned toward her parents’ room, feeling a faint draft move through the stifling shadows. In spite of the warm, muggy air, her fingers felt cold, as though turpentine was still evaporating from her skin.

Last night I dreamed about my friend Deborah. She used to make money doing Tarot readings in the Student Union; she’d always offer to do one for me, for free, but I wouldn’t let her.

Sister Marie Romaine told us in the fifth grade that Catholics aren’t allowed to do divination—we weren’t to touch Ouija boards or Tarot cards or crystal balls, because things like that are seductions of the D-E-V-I-L—she always spelled it out like that, she’d never say the word.

I’m not sure where the Devil came into it, but somehow I couldn’t bring myself to let Deb do readings for me. She was, last night, though, in my dream.

I used to watch her do it for other people; the Tarot cards fascinated me—maybe just because they seemed forbidden. But the names were so cool—the Major Arcana, the Minor Arcana; Knight of Pentacles, Page of Cups, Queen of Wands, King of Swords. The Empress, the Magician. And the Hanged Man.

Well, what else would I dream about? I mean, this was not a subtle dream, no doubt about it. There it was, right in the middle of the spread of cards, and Deb was telling me about it.

“A man is suspended by one foot from a pole laid across two trees. His arms, folded behind his back, together with his head, form a triangle with the point downward; his legs form a cross. To an extent, the Hanged Man is still earthbound, for his foot is attached to the pole.”

I could see the man on the card, suspended permanently halfway between heaven and earth. That card always looked odd to me—the man didn’t seem to be at all concerned, in spite of being upside-down and blind-folded.

Deb kept scooping up the cards and laying them out again, and that one kept coming up in every spread.

“The Hanged Man represents the necessary process of surrender and sacrifice,” she said. “This card has profound significance,” she said, and she looked at me and tapped her finger on it. “But much of it is veiled; you have to figure out the meaning for yourself. Self-surrender leads to transformation of the personality, but the person has to accomplish his own regeneration.”

Transformation of the personality. That’s what I’m afraid of, all right. I liked Roger’s personality just fine the way it was!

Well . . . rats. I don’t know how much the D-E-V-I-L has to do with it, but I am sure that trying to look too far into the future is a mistake. At least right now.


IT WAS TEN DAYS before Penelope Sherston’s portrait was completed to her satisfaction. By that point, both Isaiah Morton and Roger had recovered sufficiently for travel. Given the imminence of Morton’s offspring and the danger to him in coming anywhere near either Granite Falls or Brownsville, Jamie had arranged for him and Alicia to lodge with the brewmaster of Mr. Sherston’s brewery; Isaiah would undertake employment as a wagoner for the brewery, as soon as his strength permitted.

“I canna imagine why,” Jamie had said to me privately, “but I’ve grown a bit fond of the immoral wee loon. I shouldna like to see him murdered in cold blood.”

Isaiah’s spirits had revived spectacularly upon the arrival of Alicia, and within a week, he had made his way downstairs, to sit watching Alicia like a devoted dog as she worked in the kitchen—and to pause on his way back to bed to offer comments on the progress of Mrs. Sherston’s portrait.

“Don’t it look just like her?” he’d said admiringly, standing in his nightshirt in the door of the drawing-room where the sitting was in progress. “Why, if you was to see that picture, you’d know just who it was.”

Given the fact that Mrs. Sherston had chosen to be painted as Salome, I was not positive that this would be considered a compliment, but she flushed prettily and thanked him, evidently recognizing the sincerity in his tone.

Bree had done a marvelous job, contriving to portray Mrs. Sherston both realistically and flatteringly, but without overt irony—difficult as that must have been. The only point where she had given in to temptation was in a minor detail; the severed head of John the Baptist bore a striking resemblance to Governor Tryon’s saturnine features, but I doubted that anyone would notice, what with all the blood.

We were ready to go home, and the house was filled with a spirit of restless excitement and relief—except for Roger.

Roger was indisputably better, in purely physical terms. His hands were mobile again, bar the broken fingers, and most of the bruising over his face and body had faded. Best of all, the swelling in his throat had subsided enough that he could move air through his nose and mouth again. I was able to remove the tube from his throat, and stitch up the incision—a small but painful operation that he had borne with body stiff and eyes wide open, staring up at the ceiling while I worked.

In mental terms, I was not so sure of his recovery. After stitching his throat, I had helped him sit up, wiped his face, and given him a little water mixed with brandy as a restorative. I had watched carefully as he swallowed, then put my fingers lightly on his throat, felt carefully, and asked him to swallow again. I closed my eyes, feeling the movement of his larynx, the rings of his trachea as he swallowed, assessing as best I could the degree of damage.

At last I opened my eyes, to find his eyes two inches from my own and still wide open, the question in them cold and stark as glacier ice.

“I don’t know,” I said at last, my own voice no more than a whisper. My fingers still rested on his throat; I could feel the thrum of blood through the carotid under my palm, his life flowing just below the skin. But the angular hardness of his larynx lay still under my fingers, queerly misshapen; I felt no pulsing there, no vibration of air across the vocal cords.

“I don’t know,” I said again, and drew my fingers slowly away. “Do you—want to try now?”

He had shaken his head then, and risen from the bed, going to the window, facing away from me. His arms were braced against the frame as he looked down into the street, and a faint, uneasy memory stirred in my mind.

It had been a moonlit night, then, not broad day—in Paris. I had waked from sleep to see Jamie standing naked in the window frame, the scars on his back pale silver, arms braced and body gleaming with cold sweat. Roger was sweating, too, from the heat; the linen of his shirt stuck to his body—and the lines of his body were just the same; the look of a man braced to meet fear; one who chose to face his demons alone.

I could hear voices in the street below; Jamie, coming back from the camp, with Jemmy held before him on his saddle. He had formed the habit of taking Jem with him on his daily errands, so that Bree could work without distraction. In consequence, Jemmy had learned four new words—only two of them obscene—and Jamie’s good coat sported jam stains and smelled like a soiled diaper, but both of them seemed generally pleased with the arrangement.

Bree’s voice floated up from below, laughing as she went out to retrieve her son. Roger stood as though he’d been carved out of wood. He couldn’t call to them, but he might have knocked on the window frame, or made some other noise, waved to them. But he didn’t move.

After a moment, I rose quietly and left the room, feeling a lump in my throat, hard and unswallowable.

When Bree had carried Jemmy off for his bath, Jamie told me that Tryon had released most of the men captured during the battle. “Hugh Fowles among them.” He put aside his coat and loosened the collar of his shirt, raising his face to the slight breeze from the window. “I spoke for him—and Tryon listened.”

“As well he might,” I said, with an edge to my voice. He glanced at me, and made a noise deep in his throat. It reminded me of Roger, whose larynx was no longer capable of that peculiarly Scottish form of expression.

I must have looked distressed at the thought, for Jamie raised his brows and touched my arm. It was too hot to embrace, but I pressed my cheek against his shoulder briefly, taking comfort from the solidness of his body under the thin, damp linen.

“I sewed up Roger’s throat,” I said. “He can breathe—but I don’t know whether he’ll ever be able to talk again.” Let alone sing. The unvoiced thought floated in the muggy air.

Jamie made another noise, this one deep and angry.

“I spoke to Tryon regarding his promise to Roger Mac, as well. He’s given me the document of the land grant—five thousand acres, adjoining my own. His last official act as Governor—almost.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“I said he’s released most of the prisoners?” He moved away, restless. “All but twelve. He has a dozen men still gaoled, outlawed ringleaders of the Regulation. Or so he says.” The irony in his voice was as thick as the dusty air. “He’ll hold them for trial in a month, on charges of rebellion.”

“And if they’re found guilty—”

“At least they’ll be able to speak before they hang.”

He had stopped in front of the portrait, frowning, though I wasn’t sure whether he was actually seeing it or not.

“I willna stay to see it. I told Tryon that we must go, to tend our crops and farms. He has released the militia company from service, on those grounds.”

I felt a lightening of the weight on my heart. It would be cool in the mountains, the air green and fresh. It was a good place to heal.

“When will we go?”

“Tomorrow.” He had noticed the portrait; he nodded at the gape-jawed head on the platter in grim approval. “There’s only the one thing to stay for, and I think there’s little point to it, now.”

“What’s that?”

“Dougal’s son,” he said, turning away from the portrait. “I have been seeking William Buccleigh MacKenzie from one end of the county to the other for the past ten days. I found some who kent him, but none who has seen him since Alamance. Some said perhaps he had left the Colony altogether. A good many of the Regulators have fled; Husband’s gone—taken his family to Maryland, they say. But as for William MacKenzie, the man’s disappeared like a snake down a rat-hole; him, and his family with him.”

Last night I dreamed that we were lying under a big rowan tree, Roger and I. It was a beautiful summer day, and we were having one of those conversations we used to have all the time, about things we missed. Only the things we were talking about were there on the grass between us.

I said I’d sell my soul for a Hershey bar with almonds, and there it was. I slipped the outer wrapper off, and I could smell the chocolate. I unfolded the white paper wrapper inside and started eating the chocolate, but it was the paper we were talking about, then—the wrapper.

Roger picked it up and said what he missed most was loo-paper; this was too slick to wipe your arse with. I laughed and said there wasn’t anything complicated about toilet paper—people could make it now, if they wanted to. There was a roll of toilet paper on the ground; I pointed at it, and a big bumblebee flew down and grabbed the end of it and flew off, unfurling the toilet paper in its wake. It flew in and out, weaving it through the branches overhead.

Then Roger said it was blasphemy to think about wiping yourself with paper—it is, here. Mama writes in tiny letters when she does her case-notes, and when Da writes to Scotland he writes on both sides of the page, and then he turns it sideways and writes across the lines, so it looks like lattice-work.

Then I could see Da, sitting on the ground, writing a letter to Aunt Jenny on the toilet paper, and it was getting longer and longer and the bee was carrying it up into the air, flying off toward Scotland with it.

I use more paper than anyone. Aunt Jocasta gave me some of her old sketchbooks to use, and a whole quire of watercolor paper—but I feel guilty when I use them, because I know how expensive it is. I have to draw, though. A nice thing about doing this portrait for Mrs. Sherston—since I’m earning money, I feel like I can use a little paper.

Then the dream changed and I was drawing pictures of Jemmy, with a #2B yellow pencil. It said “Ticonderoga” on it in black letters, like the ones we used to use in school. I was drawing on toilet paper, though, and the pencil kept ripping through it, and I was so frustrated that I wadded up a bunch in my hand.

Then it went into one of those boring, uncomfortable dreams where you’re wandering around looking for a place to go to the bathroom and can’t find one—and finally you wake up enough to realize that you do have to go to the bathroom.

I can’t decide whether I’d rather have the Hershey bar, the toilet paper, or the pencil. I think the pencil. I could smell the freshly-sharpened wood on the point, and feel it between my fingers, and my teeth. I used to chew my pencils, when I was little. I still remember what it felt like to bite down hard and feel the paint and wood give, just a little, and munch my way up and down the length of the pencil, until it looked like a beaver had been gnawing on it.

I was thinking about that, this afternoon. It made me feel sad that Jem won’t have a new yellow pencil, or a lunchbox with Batman on it, when he goes to school—if he ever does go to school.

Roger’s hands are still too bad to hold a pen.

And now I know that I don’t want pencils or chocolate, or even toilet paper. I want Roger to talk to me again.