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Authors: Diana Gabaldon

Drums of Autumn (13 page)

BOOK: Drums of Autumn

“Please don’t trouble yourself,” I said. “I do believe I know what that is—it’s an inguinal hernia.”

The wide hazel eyes got wider.

“It is?” He seemed impressed, and not at all displeased by the news.

“I’d have to look—somewhere indoors, that is,” I added hastily “—to be sure, but it sounds like it. It’s quite easy to repair surgically, but…” I hesitated, looking up at the Colossus. “I really couldn’t—I mean, you’d need to be asleep. Unconscious,” I amplified. “I’d have to cut you, and sew you up again, you see. Perhaps a truss—a brace—might be better, though.”

Myers scratched slowly at his jaw, meditating.

“No, I done tried that, ’twon’t do. Cuttin’, though…You folks be staying here in the town for a spell before you head up to Cameron’s?”

“Not long,” Jamie interrupted firmly. “We shall be sailing upriver to my aunt’s estate, as soon as passage can be arranged.”

“Oh.” The giant pondered this for a moment, then nodded, beaming.

“I know the very man for you, sir. I’ll go this minute and fetch Josh Freeman out the Sailor’s Rest. Sun’s still high, he’ll be not too drunk to do business yet.” He swept me a bow, battered hat to his middle. “And then could be your wife might have the kindness to meet me in yonder tavern—it’s a mite more genteel than the Sailor’s—and have a look at this…this…” I saw his lips try to form themselves around “inguinal hernia,” then give up the effort and relax. “This yere obstruction.”

He clapped the hat back on his head, and with a nod to Jamie, was off.

Jamie watched the mountain man’s stiff-legged retreat down the street, slowed by cordial greetings to all he passed.

“What is it about ye, Sassenach, I wonder?” he said conversationally, eyes still fixed on Myers.

“What is
about me?”

He turned then, and gave me a narrow eye.

“What it is that makes every man ye meet want to take off his breeks within five minutes of meetin’ ye.”

Fergus choked slightly, and Ian went pink. I looked as demure as possible.

“Well, if you don’t know, my dear,” I said, “no one does.
seem to have found us a boat. And what have
been up to this morning?”

Industrious as always, Jamie had found us a potential gem-buyer. And not only a buyer, but an invitation to dinner with the Governor.

“Governor Tryon’s in the town just now,” he explained. “Staying at the house of a Mr. Lillington. I talked this morning wi’ a merchant named Mac-Eachern, who put me on to a man named MacLeod, who—”

“Who introduced you to MacNeil, who took you to drink with MacGregor, who told you all about his nephew Bethune, who’s the second cousin half removed of the boy who cleans the Governor’s boots,” I suggested, familiar by this time with the Byzantine pathways of Scottish business dealings.

Put two Highland Scots in a room together, and within ten minutes they would know each other’s family histories for the last two hundred years, and have discovered a helpful number of mutual relatives and acquaintances.

Jamie grinned.

“It was the Governor’s wife’s secretary,” he corrected, “and his name’s Murray. That’ll be your Da’s cousin Maggie’s eldest boy from Loch Linnhe,” he added, to Ian. “His father emigrated after the Rising.” Ian nodded casually, doubtless docketing the information in his own version of the genetic encyclopedia, stored against the day it would prove useful.

Edwin Murray, the Governor’s wife’s secretary, had welcomed Jamie warmly as a kinsman—if only by marriage—and had obtained an invitation for us to dine at Lillington’s that night, there ostensibly to acquaint the Governor with matters of trade in the Indies. In reality, we were intending to acquaint ourselves with Baron Penzler—a well-to-do German nobleman who would be dining there as well. The Baron was a man not only of wealth but of taste, with a reputation as a collector of fine objects.

“Well, it sounds a good idea,” I said dubiously. “But I think you’d better go alone. I can’t be dining with governors looking like

“Ah, ye look f—” His voice faded as he actually looked at me. His eye roamed slowly over me, taking in my grimy, bedraggled gown, wild hair and ragged bonnet.

He frowned at me. “No, I want ye there, Sassenach; I may need a distraction.”

“Speaking of distraction, how many pints did it take you to wangle an invitation to dinner?” I asked, mindful of our dwindling finances. Jamie didn’t blink, but took my arm, turning me toward the row of shops.

“Six, but he paid half. Come along, Sassenach; dinner’s at seven, and we must find ye something decent to wear.”

“But we can’t afford—”

“It’s an investment,” he said firmly. “And besides, Cousin Edwin has advanced me a bit against the sale of a stone.”

The gown was two years out of fashion by the cosmopolitan standards of Jamaica but it was clean, which was the main thing so far as I was concerned.

“You’re dripping, madame.” The sempstress’s voice was cold. A small, spare woman of middle age, she was the preeminent dressmaker in Wilmington and—I gathered—accustomed to having her fashion dictates obeyed without question. My rejection of a frilled cap in favor of freshly washed hair had been received with bad grace and predictions of pleurisy, and the pins she held in her mouth bristled like porcupine quills at my insistence on replacing the normal heavy corsetry with light boning, scalloped at the top to lift the breasts without pinching them.

“Sorry.” I tucked up the offending wet lock inside the linen towel that wrapped my head.

The guest quarters of Mr. Lillington’s great house being fully occupied by the Governor’s party, I had been relegated to Cousin Edwin’s tiny attic over the stable block, and the fitting of my gown was being accomplished to the accompaniment of muffled stampings and chewings from below, punctuated by the monotonous strains of the groom’s whistling as he mucked out the stalls.

Still, I was not inclined to complain; Mr. Lillington’s stables were a deal cleaner than the inn where Jamie and I had left our companions, and Mrs. Lillington had very graciously seen me provided with a large basin of hot water and a ball of lavender-scented soap—a consideration more important even than the fresh dress. I hoped never to see another peach.

I rose slightly on my toes, trying to see out of the window in case Jamie should be coming, but desisted at a grunt of protest from the sempstress, who was trying to adjust the hem of my skirt.

The gown itself was not at all bad; it was of cream silk, half-sleeved and very simple, but with panniers of wine-striped silk over the hips, and a ruching of claret-colored silk piping that ran in two rows from waist to bosom. With the Brussels lace I had purchased sewn around the sleeves, I thought it would do, even if the cloth was not quite of the first quality.

I had at first been surprised at the price, which was remarkably low, but now observed that the fabric of the dress was coarser than usual, with occasional slubs of thickened thread that caught the light in shimmers. Curious, I rubbed it between my fingers. I was no great judge of silk, but a Chinese acquaintance had spent most of one idle afternoon on board a ship explaining to me the lore of silkworms, and the subtle variation of their output.

“Where does this silk come from?” I asked. “It isn’t China silk; is it French?”

The sempstress looked up, her crossness temporarily relieved by interest.

“No, indeed it’s not. That’s made in South Carolina, that is. There’s a lady, Mrs. Pinckney by name, has gone and put half her land to mulberry trees, and went to raising silkworms on ’em. The cloth’s maybe not quite so fine as the China,” she acknowledged reluctantly, “but ’tisn’t but half the cost, either.”

She squinted up at me, nodding slowly.

“It’ll do for fit, and the bit o’ piping’s good; brings out the color in your cheeks. But begging your pardon, madame, you do need something above the neck, not to look too bare. If you won’t have a cap nor a wig, might be you’d have a ribbon?”

“Oh, ribbon!” I said, remembering. “Yes, what a good idea. Do look in my basket over there, and you’ll find a length that might just do.”

Between us we managed to get my hair piled up, loosely bound with the length of dark pink ribbon, damp curly tendrils coming down—I couldn’t stop them—around my ears and brow.

“Not too much mutton dressed as lamb, is it?” I asked, suddenly worried. I smoothed a hand down the front of the bodice, but it fit snugly—and trimly—around my waist.

“Oh, no, madame,” the sempstress assured me. “Quite appropriate, and I say it myself.” She frowned at me, calculating. “Only it is a bit
over the bosom, still. You haven’t any jewelry, at all?”

“Just this.” We turned in surprise as Jamie ducked his head to come in the door; neither of us had heard him coming.

He had somewhere managed to have a bath and procure a clean shirt and neckcloth; beyond that, someone had combed and plaited his hair into a smooth queue, bound with the new blue silk ribbon. His serviceable coat had not only been brushed, but improved by the application of a set of silver-gilt buttons, each delicately engraved with a small flower in the center.

“Very nice,” I said, touching one.

“Rented from the goldsmith,” he said. “But they’ll do. So will this, I think.” He drew out a filthy handkerchief from his pocket, from the folds of which he produced a slender gold chain.

“He hadna time for any but the simplest mount,” he said, frowning in concentration as he fastened the chain around my neck. “But I think that’s best, don’t you?”

The ruby hung glinting just above the hollow of my breasts, casting a pale rosy glow against my white skin.

“I’m glad you picked that one,” I said, touching the stone gently. It was warm from his body. “Goes much better with the dress than the sapphire or the emerald would.” The sempstress’s jaw hung slightly open. She glanced from me to Jamie, her impression of our social position evidently going up by leaps and bounds.

Jamie had finally taken time to notice the rest of my costume. His eyes traveled slowly over me from head to hem, and a smile spread across his face.

“Ye make a verra ornamental jewel box, Sassenach,” he said. “A fine distraction, aye?”

He glanced out the window, where a pale peach color stained a hazy evening sky, then turned to me, bowed and made a leg. “Might I claim the pleasure of your company for dinner, madame?”



hile I was familiar with the eighteenth-century willingness to eat anything that could be physically overpowered and dragged to the table, I did not subscribe to the mania for presenting wild dishes as though they had not in fact undergone the intermediary processes of being killed and cooked before making their appearance at dinner.

I thus viewed the large sturgeon with which I sat eyeball-to-eyeball with a marked lack of appetite. Complete not only with eyes but with scales, fins, and tail, the three-foot fish rode majestically on waves of roe in aspic, decorated with a vast quantity of tiny spiced crabs, which had been boiled whole and scattered artistically over the platter.

I took another large sip of wine and turned to my dinner companion, trying to keep my eyes off the bulging glare of the sturgeon by my elbow.

“…the most impertinent fellow!” Mr. Stanhope was saying, by way of describing a gentleman he had encountered in a post-house whilst on his way to Wilmington from his property near New Bern.

“Why, in the very midst of our refreshment, he began to speak of his piles, and what torment they caused him with the coach’s continual bouncing. And then damme if the crude fellow did not pull his kerchief out of his pocket, all spotted with blood, to show the company by way of evidence! Quite destroyed my appetite, ma’am, I assure you,” he assured me, forking up a substantial mouthful of chicken fricassee. He chewed it slowly, regarding me with pale, bulging eyes that reminded me uncomfortably of the sturgeon’s.

Across the table, Phillip Wylie’s long mouth twitched with amusement.

“Take care your conversation doesn’t incur a similar effect, Stanhope,” he said, with a nod at my untouched plate. “Though a certain crudeness of company is one of the perils of public transport, I do admit.”

Stanhope sniffed, brushing crumbs from the folds of his neckcloth.

“Needn’t put on airs, Wylie. It’s not everyone can afford to keep a coachman, ’specially not with all these fresh taxes. New one stuck on every time one turns around, I do declare!” He waved his fork indignantly. “Tobacco, wine, brandy, all very well, but a tax upon
have you heard the like? Why, my sister’s oldest boy was awarded a degree from Yale University a year past”—he puffed his chest unconsciously, speaking just slightly louder than usual—“and damned if she was not required to pay half a shilling, merely to have his diploma officially stamped!”

“But that is no longer the case at present,” Cousin Edwin said patiently. “Since the repeal of the Stamp Act—”

Stanhope plucked one of the tiny crabs from the platter and brandished it at Edwin in accusation.

“Get rid of one tax, and another pops up in its place directly. Just like mushrooms!” He popped the crab into his mouth and was heard to mumble something indistinctly about taxing the air next, he shouldn’t wonder.

“You are come but recently from the Indies, I understand, Madame Fraser?” Baron Penzler, on my other side, seized the momentary opportunity to interrupt. “I doubt you will be familiar with such provincial matters—or interested in them,” he added, with a nod of benevolent dismissal at Stanhope.

“Oh, surely everyone is interested in taxes,” I said, turning slightly sideways so as to display my bosom to best effect. “Or don’t you believe that taxes are what we pay for a civilized society? Though having heard Mr. Stanhope’s story”—I nodded to my other side—“perhaps he would agree that the level of civilization isn’t quite equal to the level of taxation?”

“Ha ha!” Stanhope choked on his bread, spewing crumbs. “Oh, very good! Not equal to—ha ha, no, certainly not!”

Phillip Wylie gave me a look of sardonic acknowledgment.

“You must try not to be so amusing, Mrs. Fraser,” he said. “It may be the death of poor Stanhope.”

“Er…what is the current rate of taxation, do you think?” I asked, tactfully drawing attention away from Stanhope’s spluttering.

Wylie pursed his lips, considering. A dandy, he wore the latest in modish wigs, and a small patch in the shape of a star beside his mouth. Under the powder, though, I thought I detected both a good-looking face and a very shrewd brain.

“Oh, considering all incidentals, I should say it can amount to as much as two per centum of all income, if one was to include the taxes on slaves. Add taxes on lands and crops, and it amounts to a bit more, perhaps.”

“Two percent!” Stanhope choked, pounding himself on the chest. “Iniquitous! Simply iniquitous!”

With vivid memories of the last IRS form I had signed, I agreed sympathetically that a two percent tax rate was a positive outrage, wondering to myself just what had become of the fiery spirit of American taxpayers over the intervening two hundred years.

“But perhaps we should change the subject,” I said, seeing that heads were beginning to turn in our direction from the upper end of the table. “After all, speaking of taxes at the Governor’s table is rather like talking of rope in the house of the hanged, isn’t it?”

At this, Mr. Stanhope swallowed a crab whole, and choked in good earnest.

His partner on the other side pounded him helpfully on the back, and the small black boy who had been occupied in swatting flies near the open windows was sent hastily to fetch water. I marked out a sharp, slender knife by the fish platter, just in case, though I hoped I shouldn’t be compelled to perform a tracheotomy on the spot; it wasn’t the kind of attention I was hoping to attract.

Luckily such drastic measures weren’t required; the crab was disgorged by a fortunate slap, leaving the victim empurpled and gasping, but otherwise unharmed.

“Someone had mentioned newspapers,” I said, once Mr. Stanhope had been thus rescued from his excesses. “We’ve been here so short a time that I haven’t seen any; is there a regular paper printed in Wilmington?”

I had ulterior motives for asking this, beyond a desire to allow Mr. Stanhope time to recover himself. Among the few worldly goods Jamie possessed was a printing press, presently in storage in Edinburgh.

Wilmington, it appeared, had two printers in residence, but only one of these gentlemen—a Mr. Jonathan Gillette—produced a regular newspaper.

“And it may soon cease to be so regular,” Stanhope said darkly. “I hear that Mr. Gillette has received a warning from the Committee of Safety, that—ah!” He gave a brief exclamation, his plump face creased in pained surprise.

“Have you a particular interest, Mrs. Fraser?” Wylie inquired politely, darting a look under his brows at his friend. “I had heard that your husband had some connection with the printing trade in Edinburgh.”

“Why, yes,” I said, rather surprised that he should know so much about us. “Jamie owned a printing establishment there, though he didn’t issue a newspaper—books and pamphlets and plays and the like.”

Wylie’s finely arched brow twitched up.

“No political leanings, then, your husband? So often printers find their skills suborned by those whose passions seek outlet in print—but then, such passions are not necessarily shared by the printer.”

That rang numerous alarm bells; did Wylie actually know anything about Jamie’s political connections in Edinburgh—most of whom had been thoroughly seditious—or was this only normal dinner table conversation? Judging from Stanhope’s remarks, newspapers and politics were evidently connected in people’s minds—and little wonder, given the times.

Jamie, at the far end of the table, had caught his name and now turned his head slightly to smile at me, before returning to an earnest conversation with the Governor, at whose right hand he sat. I wasn’t sure whether this placement was the work of Mr. Lillington, who sat on the Governor’s left, following the conversation with the intelligent, slightly mournful expression of a basset hound, or of Cousin Edwin, consigned to the seat opposite me, between Phillip Wylie and Wylie’s sister, Judith.

“Oh, a tradesman,” this lady now remarked, in a meaningful tone of voice. She smiled at me, careful not to expose her teeth. Likely decayed, I thought. “And is this”—she gave a vague wave at her head, comparing my ribbon to the towering confection of her wig—“the style in Edinburgh, Mrs. Fraser? How…charming.”

Her brother gave her a narrowed eye.

“I believe I have also heard that Mr. Fraser is the nephew of Mrs. Cameron of River Run,” he said pleasantly. “Have I been correctly informed, Mrs. Fraser?”

Cousin Edwin, who had undoubtedly been the source of this information, buttered his roll with sedulous concentration. Cousin Edwin looked very little like a secretary, being a tall and prepossessing young man with a pair of lively brown eyes—one of which now gave me the merest suggestion of a wink.

The Baron, as bored with newspapers as with taxes, perked up a bit at hearing the name Cameron.

“River Run?” he said. “You have relations with Mrs. Jocasta Cameron?”

“She’s my husband’s aunt,” I replied. “Do you know her?”

“Oh, indeed! A charming woman, most charming!” A broad smile lifted the Baron’s pendulous cheeks. “Since many years, I am the dear friend of Mrs. Cameron and her husband, unfortunately dead.”

The Baron launched into an enthusiastic recounting of the delights of River Run, and I took advantage of the lull to accept a small wedge of fish pie, full not only of fish, but of oysters and shrimps in a creamy sauce. Mr. Lillington had certainly spared no effort to impress the Governor.

As I leaned back for the footman to ladle more sauce onto my plate, I caught Judith Wylie’s eyes on me, narrowed in a look of dislike that she didn’t trouble to disguise. I smiled pleasantly at her, displaying my own excellent teeth, and turned back to the Baron, newly confident.

There had been no looking glass in Edwin’s quarters, and while Jamie had assured me that I looked all right, his standards were rather different from those of fashion. I had received any number of admiring compliments from the gentlemen at table, true, but this might be no more than customary politeness; extravagant gallantry was common among upper-class men.

But Miss Wylie was twenty-five years my junior, fashionably gowned and jeweled, and if no great beauty, not plain, either. Her jealousy was a better reflection of my appearance, I thought, than any looking glass.

“Such a beautiful stone, Mrs. Fraser—you will permit me to look more closely?” The Baron bent toward me, pudgy fingers delicately poised above my cleavage.

“Oh, certainly,” I said with alacrity, and quickly unclasped the chain, dropping the ruby into his broad, moist palm. The Baron looked slightly disappointed not to have been allowed to examine the stone
in situ,
but lifted his hand, squinting at the glinting droplet with the air of a connoisseur—which he evidently was, for he reached into his watch pocket and withdrew a small gadget that proved to be a combination of optical lenses, including both a magnifying glass and a jeweler’s loupe.

I relaxed, seeing this, and accepted a helping of something hot and savory-smelling from a glass dish being passed by the butler. What possessed people to serve hot food when the temperature in the room must be at least in the nineties?

“Beautiful,” murmured the Baron, rolling the stone gently in his palm.
“Sehr schön.”

There were not many things about which I would have trusted Geillis Duncan, but I was sure of her taste in jewels. “It must be a stone of the first class,” she had said to me, explaining her theory of time travel via gems. “Large, and completely flawless.”

The ruby was large, all right; nearly the size of the pickled quail’s eggs surrounding the fully plumed pheasant on the sideboard. As to its flawlessness, I felt no doubt. Geilie had trusted this stone to carry her into the future; I thought it would probably get us as far as Cross Creek. I took a bite of the food on my plate; some sort of ragout, I thought, very tender and flavorful.

“How delicious this is,” I said to Mr. Stanhope, lifting another forkful. “What is this dish, do you know?”

“Oh, it is one of my particular favorites, ma’am,” he said, inhaling beatifically over his own plate. “Soused hog’s face. Delectable, is it not?”

I shut the door of Cousin Edwin’s room behind me and leaned against it, letting my jaw hang open in sheer relief at no longer being required to smile. Now I could take off the clinging dress, undo the tight corset, slip off the sweaty shoes.

Peace, solitude, nakedness, and silence. I couldn’t think of anything else required to make my life complete for the moment, save a little fresh air. I stripped off, and attired in nothing but my shift, went to open the window.

The air outside was so thick, I thought I could have stepped out and floated down through it, like a pebble dropped in a jar of molasses. The bugs came at once to the flame of my candle, light-crazed and blood-hungry. I blew it out and sat on the window seat in the dark, letting the soft, warm air move over me.

The ruby still hung at my neck, black as a blood drop against my skin. I touched it, set it swinging gently between my breasts; the stone was warm as my own blood, too.

Outside, the guests were beginning to depart; a line of waiting carriages was drawn up on the drive. The sounds of goodbyes, conversations, and soft laughter drifted up to me in snatches.

“…quite clever, I thought,” came up in Phillip Wylie’s cultured drawl.

certainly it was
!” His sister’s higher-pitched tones made it quite clear what she thought of cleverness as a social attribute.

“Well, cleverness in a woman can be tolerated, my dear, so long as she is also pleasant to look upon. By the same token, a woman who has beauty may perhaps dispense with wit, so long as she has sense enough to conceal the lack by keeping her mouth shut.”

Miss Wylie might not be accused of cleverness, but had certainly adequate sensibility to perceive the barb in this. She gave a rather unladylike snort.

“She is a thousand years old, at least,” she replied. “Pleasant to look at, indeed. Though I will say it was a handsome trinket about her neck,” she added grudgingly.

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