Drums of Autumn

Drums of Autumn

Page 47

“No, I wouldna let Campbell send for you,” he said softly. “There’s the law, Sassenach—and there is justice. I ken the difference well enough.”

“There’s such a thing as mercy, too.” And had anyone asked, I would have called Jamie Fraser a merciful man. He had been, once. But the years between now and then had been hard ones—and compassion was a soft emotion, easily eroded by circumstance. I had thought he still had his kindness, though; and felt a queer pain at the thought of its loss. I shouldna think so, no. Had that been no more than honesty?

The boat had drifted halfway round, so that the drooping branch hung now between us. There was a small snort from the darkness behind the leaves.

“Blessed are the merciful,” he said, “for they shall find mercy. Byrnes wasn’t, and he didn’t. And as for me, once God had made his opinion of the man known, I didna think it right to interfere.”

“You think God gave him tetanus?”

“I canna think anyone else would have the imagination for it. Besides,” he went on, logically, “where else would ye look for justice?”

I searched for words, and failed to find any. Giving up, I returned to the only possible point of argument. I felt a little sick.

“You ought to have told me. Even if you didn’t think I could help, it wasn’t your business to decide—”

“I didna want ye to go.” His voice was still quiet, but there was a note of steel in it now.

“I know you didn’t! But it doesn’t matter whether you thought Byrnes deserved to suffer or—”

“Not for him!” The boat rocked suddenly as he moved, and I grasped the sides to keep my balance. He spoke violently.

“I didna care a fig whether Byrnes died easy or hard, but I’m no a monster of cruelty! I didna keep you from him to make him suffer; I kept ye away to protect you.”

I was relieved to hear this, but increasingly angry as the truth of what he’d done dawned on me.

“It wasn’t your business to decide that. If I’m not your conscience, it isn’t up to you to be mine!” I brushed angrily at the screen of willow fronds between us, trying to see him.

Suddenly a hand shot through the leaves and grabbed my wrist.

“It’s up to me to keep ye safe!”

I tried to jerk away, but he had a tight grip on me, and he wasn’t letting go.

“I am not a young girl who needs protection, nor yet an idiot! If there’s some reason for me not to do something, then tell me and I’ll listen. But you can’t decide what I’m to do and where I’m to go without even consulting me—I won’t stand for that, and you bloody well know it!”

The boat lurched, and with a huge rustling of leaves, he popped his head through the willow, glaring.

“I am not trying to say where ye’ll go!”

“You decided where I mustn’t go, and that’s just as bad!” The willow leaves slid back over his shoulders as the boat moved, jarred by his violence, and we revolved slowly, coming out of the tree’s shadow.

He loomed in front of me, massive as the mill, his head and shoulders blotting out a good bit of the scenery behind him. The long, straight nose was an inch from mine, and his eyes had gone narrow. They were a dark enough blue to be black in this light, and looking into them at close range was most unnerving.

I blinked. He didn’t.

He had let go of my wrist when he came through the leaves. Now he took hold of my upper arms. I could feel the heat of his grip through the cloth. His hands were very big and very hard, making me suddenly aware of the fragility of my own bones in contrast. I am a violent man.

He’d shaken me a time or two before, and I hadn’t liked it. In case he had something of the sort in mind just now, I inserted a foot between his legs, and prepared to give him a swift knee where it would do most good.

“I was wrong,” he said.

Tensed for violence, I had actually started to jerk my foot up, when I heard what he had said. Before I could stop, he had clamped his legs tight together, trapping my knee between his thighs.

“I said I was wrong, Sassenach,” he repeated, a touch of impatience in his voice. “D’ye mind?”

“Ah…no,” I said, feeling a trifle sheepish. I wiggled my knee tentatively, but he kept his thighs squeezed tight together.

“You wouldn’t consider letting go of me, would you?” I said politely. My heart was still pounding.

“No, I wouldn’t. Are ye going to listen to me now?”

“I suppose so,” I said, still polite. “It doesn’t look as though I’m very busy at the moment.”

I was close enough to see his mouth twitch. His thighs squeezed tighter for a moment, then relaxed.

“This is a verra foolish quarrel, and you know that as well as I do.”

“No, I don’t.” My anger had faded somewhat, but I wasn’t about to let him dismiss it altogether. “It’s maybe not important to you, but it is to me. It isn’t foolish. And you know it, or you wouldn’t be admitting you’re wrong.”

The twitch was more pronounced this time. He took a deep breath, and dropped his hands from my shoulders.

“Well, then. I should maybe have told ye about Byrnes; I admit it. But if I had, ye would have gone to him, even if I’d said it was the lockjaw—and I kent it was, I’ve seen it before. Even if there was nothing ye could do, you’d still go? No?”

“Yes. Even if—yes, I would have gone.”

In fact, there was nothing I could have done for Byrnes. Myers’s anesthetic wouldn’t have helped a case of tetanus. Nothing short of injectable curare would ease those spasms. I could have given him nothing more than the comfort of my presence, and it was doubtful that he would have appreciated that—or even noticed it. Still, I would have felt bound to offer it.

“I would have had to go,” I said, more gently. “I’m a doctor. Don’t you see?”

“Of course I do,” he said gruffly. “D’ye think I dinna ken ye at all, Sassenach?”

Without waiting for an answer, he went on.

“There was talk about what happened at the mill—there would be, aye? But with the man dying under your hands as he did—well, no one’s said straight out that ye might have killed him on purpose…but it’s easy to see folk thinkin’ it. Not thinkin’ that ye killed him, even—but only that ye might have thought to let him die on purpose, so as to save him from the rope.”

I stared at my hands, spread out on my knees, nearly as pale as the ivory satin under them.

“I did think of it.”

“I ken that fine, aye?” he said dryly. “I saw your face, Sassenach.”

I drew a deep breath, if only to assure myself that the air was no longer thick with the smell of blood. There was nothing but the turpentine scent of the pine forest, clean and astringent in my nostrils. I had a sudden vivid memory of the hospital, of the smell of pine-scented disinfectant that hung in the air, that overlaid but could not banish the underlying smell of sickness.

I took another cleansing breath, and raised my head to look at Jamie.

“And did you wonder if I’d killed him?”

He looked faintly surprised.

“Ye would have done as ye thought best.” He dismissed the minor question of whether I’d killed a man, in favor of the point at issue.

“But it didna seem wise for ye to preside over both deaths, if ye take my meaning.”

I did, and not for the first time I was aware of the subtle networks of which he was a part, in a way I could never be. This place in its way was as strange to him as it was to me; and yet he knew not only what people were saying—anyone could find that out, who cared to haunt tavern and market—but what they were thinking.

What was more irritating was that he knew what I was thinking.

“So ye see,” he said, watching me. “I kent Byrnes was sure to die, and ye couldna help. Yet if ye knew his trouble, ye’d surely go to him. And then he would die, and folk would maybe not say how strange it was, that both men had died under your hand, so to speak—but—”

“But they’d be thinking it,” I finished for him.

The twitch grew into a crooked smile.

“Folk notice you, Sassenach.”

I bit my lip. For good or for ill, they did, and the noticing had come close to killing me more than once.

He rose, and taking hold of a branch for balance, stepped out on the gravel and pulled the plaid up over his shoulder.

“I told Mrs. Byrnes I would fetch away her husband’s things from the mill,” he said. “Ye needna come, if ye dinna wish.”

The mill loomed against the star-spattered sky. It couldn’t have looked more sinister if it had tried. Whither thou goest, I will go.

I thought I knew now what he was doing. He had wanted to see it all, before making up his mind; see it with the knowledge that it might be his. Walking through the gardens and orchards, rowing past the acres of thick pines, visiting the mill—he was surveying the domain he was offered, weighing and evaluating, deciding what complications must be dealt with, and whether he could or would accept the challenge.

After all, I thought sourly, the Devil had insisted on showing Jesus everything He was passing up, taking Him up to the top of the Temple to gaze on the cities of the world. The only difficulty was that if Jamie decided to fling himself off, there wasn’t a legion of angels standing by to stop him dashing his foot—and everything else—against a slab of Scottish granite.

Only me.

“Wait,” I said, clambering out of the boat. “I’m coming, too.”

The lumber was still stacked in the millyard; no one had moved any of it since the last time I had been here. The dark took away all sense of perspective; the stacks of fresh timber were pale rectangles that seemed to float above an invisible ground, first distant, then suddenly looming close enough to brush my skirts. The air smelt of pinesap and sawdust.

I couldn’t see the ground under my own feet, for that matter, obscured as it was both by darkness and by my billowing ivory skirt. Jamie held my arm to keep me from stumbling. He never stumbled, of course. Perhaps living all his life without even the thought of light outside after sunset had given him some sort of radar, I thought; like a bat.

There was a fire burning, somewhere among the slave huts. It was very late; most would be sleeping. In the Indies, there would have been the nightlong sound of drums and keening; the slaves would have made lamentations for a fellow’s death, a festival of mourning to last the week. Here, there was nothing. No sound save the pine trees’ soughing, no flicker of movement save the faint light at the forest’s edge.

“They are afraid,” Jamie said softly, pausing to listen to the silence, as I did.

“Little wonder,” I said, half under my breath. “So am I.”

He made a small huffing sound that might have been amusement.

“So am I,” he muttered, “but not of ghosts.” He took my arm and pushed open the small man-door at the side of the mill before I could ask what he was afraid of.

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