Read Drums of Autumn Online

Authors: Diana Gabaldon

Drums of Autumn (5 page)

“He didna turn to see,” Jamie went on, “but kept walking. And the steps kept pace wi’ him, step by step, always following. And he came through the peat where the water seeps up, and it was crusted with ice, the weather bein’ so cold. He could hear the peat crackle under his feet, and behind him the crack! crack! of breaking ice.

“He walked and he walked, through the cold, dark night, watching ahead for the light of his own window, where his wife had set the candle. But the light never showed, and he began to fear he had lost his way among the heather and the dark hills. And all the time, the steps kept pace with him, loud in his ears.

“At last he could bear it no more, and seizing hold of the crucifix he wore round his neck, he swung about wi’ a great cry to face whatever followed.”

“What did he see?” Ian’s pupils were dilated, dark with drink and wonder. Jamie glanced at the boy, and then at Duncan, nodding at him to take up the story.

“He said it was a figure like a man, but with no body,” Duncan said quietly. “All white, like as it might have been made of the mist. But wi’ great holes where its eyes should be, and empty black, fit to draw the soul from his body with dread.”

“But Gavin held up his cross before his face, and he prayed aloud to the Blessed Virgin.” Jamie took up the story, leaning forward intently, the dim firelight outlining his profile in gold. “And the thing came no nearer, but stayed there, watching him.

“And so he began to walk backward, not daring to face round again. He walked backward, stumbling and slipping, fearing every moment as he might tumble into a burn or down a cliff and break his neck, but fearing worse to turn his back on the cold thing.

“He couldna tell how long he’d walked, only that his legs were trembling wi’ weariness, when at last he caught a glimpse of light through the mist, and there was his own cottage, wi’ the candle in the window. He cried out in joy, and turned to his door, but the cold thing was quick, and slippit past him, to stand betwixt him and the door.

“His wife had been watching out for him, and when she heard him cry out, she came at once to the door. Gavin shouted to her not to come out, but for God’s sake to fetch a charm to drive away the
tannasq
. Quick as thought, she snatched the pot from beneath her bed, and a twig of myrtle bound wi’ red thread and black, that she’d made to bless the cows. She dashed the water against the doorposts, and the cold thing leapt upward, astride the lintel. Gavin rushed in beneath and barred the door, and stayed inside in his wife’s arms until the dawn. They let the candle burn all the night, and Gavin Hayes never again left his house past sunset—until he went to fight for Prince
Tearlach
.”

Even Duncan, who knew the tale, sighed as Jamie finished speaking. Ian crossed himself, then looked about self-consciously, but no one seemed to have noticed.

“So, now Gavin has gone into the dark,” Jamie said softly. “But we willna let him lie in unconsecrated ground.”

“Did they find the cow?” Fergus asked, with his usual practicality. Jamie quirked one eyebrow at Duncan, who answered.

“Oh, aye, they did. The next morning they found the poor beast, wi’ her hooves all clogged wi’ mud and stones, staring mad and lathered about the muzzle, and her sides heavin’ fit to burst.” He glanced from me to Ian and back to Fergus. “Gavin did say,” he said precisely, “that she looked as though she’d been ridden to Hell and back.”

“Jesus.” Ian took a deep gulp of his ale, and I did the same. In the corner, the drinking society was making attempts on a round of “Captain Thunder,” breaking down each time in helpless laughter.

Ian put down his cup on the table.

“What happened to them?” he asked, his face troubled. “To Gavin’s wife, and his son?”

Jamie’s eyes met mine, and his hand touched my thigh. I knew, without being told, what had happened to the Hayes family. Without Jamie’s own courage and intransigence, the same thing would likely have happened to me and to our daughter Brianna.

“Gavin never knew,” Jamie said quietly. “He never heard aught of his wife—she will have been starved, maybe, or driven out to die of the cold. His son took the field beside him at Culloden. Whenever a man who had fought there came into our cell, Gavin would ask—‘Have ye maybe seen a bold lad named Archie Hayes, about so tall?’ He measured automatically, five feet from the floor, capturing Hayes’ gesture. “ ‘A lad about fourteen,’ he’d say, ‘wi’ a green plaidie and a small gilt brooch.’ But no one ever came who had seen him for sure—either seen him fall or seen him run away safe.”

Jamie took a sip of the ale, his eyes fixed on a pair of British officers who had come in and settled in the corner. It had grown dark outside, and they were plainly off duty. Their leather stocks were unfastened on account of the heat, and they wore only sidearms, glinting under their coats; nearly black in the dim light save where the firelight touched them with red.

“Sometimes he hoped the lad might have been captured and transported,” he said. “Like his brother.”

“Surely that would be somewhere in the records?” I said. “Did they—do they—keep lists?”

“They did,” Jamie said, still watching the soldiers. A small, bitter smile touched the corner of his mouth. “It was such a list that saved me, after Culloden, when they asked my name before shooting me, so as to add it to their roll. But a man like Gavin would have no way to see the English deadlists. And if he could have found out, I think he would not.” He glanced at me. “Would you choose to know for sure, and it was your child?”

I shook my head, and he gave me a faint smile and squeezed my hand. Our child was safe, after all. He picked up his cup and drained it, then beckoned to the serving maid.

The girl brought the food, skirting the table widely in order to avoid Rollo. The beast lay motionless under the table, his head protruding into the room and his great hairy tail lying heavily across my feet, but his yellow eyes were wide open, watching everything. They followed the girl intently, and she backed nervously away, keeping an eye on him until she was safely out of biting distance.

Seeing this, Jamie cast a dubious look at the so-called dog.

“Is he hungry? Must I ask for a fish for him?”

“Oh, no, Uncle,” Ian reassured him. “Rollo catches his own fish.”

Jamie’s eyebrows shot up, but he only nodded, and with a wary glance at Rollo, took a platter of roasted oysters from the tray.

“Ah, the pity of it.” Duncan Innes was quite drunk by now. He sat slumped against the wall, his armless shoulder riding higher than the other, giving him a strange, hunchbacked appearance. “That a dear man like Gavin should come to such an end!” He shook his head lugubriously, swinging it back and forth over his alecup like the clapper of a funeral bell.

“No family left to mourn him, cast alone into a savage land—hanged as a felon, and to be buried in an unconsecrated grave. Not even a proper lament to be sung for him!” He picked up the cup, and with some difficulty, found his mouth with it. He drank deep and set it down with a muffled clang.

“Well, he
shall
have a
caithris
!” He glared belligerently from Jamie to Fergus to Ian. “Why not?”

Jamie wasn’t drunk, but he wasn’t completely sober either. He grinned at Duncan and lifted his own cup in salute.

“Why not, indeed?” he said. “Only it will have to be you singin’ it, Duncan. None of the rest knew Gavin, and I’m no singer. I’ll shout along wi’ ye, though.”

Duncan nodded magisterially, bloodshot eyes surveying us. Without warning, he flung back his head and emitted a terrible howl. I jumped in my seat, spilling half a cup of ale into my lap. Ian and Fergus, who had evidently heard Gaelic laments before, didn’t turn a hair.

All over the room, benches were shoved back, as men leapt to their feet in alarm, reaching for their pistols. The barmaid leaned out of the serving hatch, eyes big. Rollo came awake with an explosive
“Woof!”
and glared round wildly, teeth bared.

“Tha sinn cruinn a chaoidh ar caraid, Gabhainn Hayes,”
Duncan thundered, in a ragged baritone. I had just about enough Gaelic to translate this as “We are met to weep and cry out to heaven for the loss of our friend, Gavin Hayes!”

“Èisd ris!”
Jamie chimed in.

“Rugadh e do Sheumas Immanuel Hayes agus Louisa N’ic a Liallainn an am baile Chill-Mhartainn, ann an sgire Dhun Domhnuill, anns a bhliadhnaseachd ceud deug agus a haon!”
He was born of Seaumais Emmanuel Hayes and of Louisa Maclellan, in the village of Kilmartin in the parish of Dodanil, in the year of our Lord seventeen hundred and one!

“Èisd ris!”
This time Fergus and Ian joined in on the chorus, which I translated roughly as “Hear him!”

Rollo appeared not to care for either verse or refrain; his ears lay flat against his skull, and his yellow eyes narrowed to slits. Ian scratched his head in reassurance, and he lay down again, muttering wolf curses under his breath.

The audience, having caught on to it that no actual violence threatened, and no doubt bored with the inferior vocal efforts of the drinking society in the corner, settled down to enjoy the show. By the time Duncan had worked his way into an accounting of the names of the sheep Gavin Hayes had owned before leaving his croft to follow his laird to Culloden, many of those at the surrounding tables were joining enthusiastically in the chorus, shouting
“Èisd ris!”
and banging their mugs on the tables, in perfect ignorance of what was being said, and a good thing too.

Duncan, drunker than ever, fixed the soldiers at the next table with a baleful glare, sweat pouring down his face.

“A Shasunnaich na galladh’s olc a thig e dhuibh fanaid air bàs gasgaich. Gun toireadh an diabhul fhein leis anns a bhàs sibh, direach do Fhirinn!!”
Wicked Sassenach dogs, eaters of dead flesh! Ill does it become you to laugh and rejoice at the death of a gallant man! May the devil himself seize upon you in the hour of your death and take you straight to hell!

Ian blanched slightly at this, and Jamie cast Duncan a narrow look, but they stoutly shouted
“Èisd ris!”
along with the rest of the crowd.

Fergus, seized by inspiration, got up and passed his hat among the crowd, who, carried away by ale and excitement, happily flung coppers into it for the privilege of joining in their own denunciation.

I had as good a head for drink as most men, but a much smaller bladder. Head spinning from the noise and fumes as much as from alcohol, I got up and edged my way out from behind the table, through the mob, and into the fresh air of the early evening.

It was still hot and sultry, though the sun was long since down. Still, there was a lot more air out here, and a lot fewer people sharing it.

Having relieved the internal pressure, I sat down on the tavern’s chopping block with my pewter mug, breathing deeply. The night was clear, with a bright half-moon peeping silver over the harbor’s edge. Our wagon stood nearby, no more than its outline visible in the light from the tavern windows. Presumably, Gavin Hayes’ decently shrouded body lay within. I trusted he had enjoyed his
caithris
.

Inside, Duncan’s chanting had come to an end. A clear tenor voice, wobbly with drink, but sweet nonetheless, was singing a familiar tune, audible over the babble of talk.

“To Anacreon in heav’n, where he sat in full glee,
A few sons of harmony sent a petition,
That he their inspirer and patron would be!
When this answer arrived from the jolly old Grecian:
‘Voice, fiddle, and flute,
      No longer be mute!
      I’ll lend you my name and inspire you to boot.’ ”

The singer’s voice cracked painfully on “voice, fiddle, and flute,” but he sang stoutly on, despite the laughter from his audience. I smiled wryly to myself as he hit the final couplet,

“ ‘And, besides, I’ll instruct you like me to entwine,
The Myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s vine!’ ”

I lifted my cup in salute to the wheeled coffin, softly echoing the melody of the singer’s last lines.

“Oh, say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”

I drained my cup and sat still, waiting for the men to come out.

2

IN WHICH WE MEET A GHOST

T
en, eleven, twelve…and two, and six…one pound, eight shillings, sixpence, two farthings!” Fergus dropped the last coin ceremoniously into the cloth pocket, pulled tight the drawstrings, and handed it to Jamie. “And three buttons,” he added, “but I have kept those,” and patted the side of his coat.

“Ye’ve settled with the landlord for our meal?” Jamie asked me, weighing the little bag.

“Yes,” I assured him. “I have four shillings and sixpence left, plus what Fergus collected.”

Fergus smiled modestly, square white teeth gleaming in the faint light from the tavern’s window.

“We have the necessary money for the burial, then,” he said. “Will we take Monsieur Hayes to the priest now, or wait till morning?”

Jamie frowned at the wagon, standing silent at the edge of the inn yard.

“I shouldna think the priest will be awake at this hour,” he said, with a glance at the rising moon. “Still—”

“I’d just as soon not take him with us,” I said. “Not to be rude,” I added apologetically to the wagon. “But if we’re going to sleep out in the woods, the…er…scent…” It wasn’t overpowering, but once away from the smoky reek of the tavern, a distinct odor was noticeable in the vicinity of the wagon. It hadn’t been a gentle death, and it
had
been a hot day.

“Auntie Claire is right,” Ian said, brushing his knuckles inconspicuously under his nose. “We dinna want to be attracting wild animals.”

“We canna be leaving Gavin here, surely!” Duncan protested, scandalized at the thought. “What, leave him lying on the step o’ the inn in his shroud, like a foundling wrapped in swaddling clothes?” He swayed alarmingly, his alcoholic intake affecting his always precarious balance.

I saw Jamie’s wide mouth twitch with amusement, the moon shining white on the knife-edged bridge of his nose.

“No,” he said. “We willna be leaving him here.” He tossed the little bag from hand to hand with a faint chinking sound, then, making his decision, thrust it into his coat.

“We’ll bury him ourselves,” he said. “Fergus, will ye be stepping into the stable yonder and see can ye buy a spade verra cheap?”

The short journey to the church through the quiet streets of Charleston was somewhat less dignified than the usual funeral cortege, marked as it was by Duncan’s insistence on repeating the more interesting portions of his lament as a processional.

Jamie drove slowly, shouting occasional encouragement to the horses; Duncan staggered beside the team, chanting hoarsely and clutching one animal by its headstall, while Ian held the other to prevent bolting. Fergus and I brought up the rear in staid respectability, Fergus holding his newly purchased shovel at port-arms, and muttering dire predictions as to the likelihood of us all spending the night in gaol for disturbing the peace of Charleston.

As it was, the church stood by itself in a quiet street, some distance from the nearest house. This was all to the good, in terms of avoiding notice, but it did mean that the churchyard was dauntingly dark, with no glow of torch or candle to pierce the blackness.

Great magnolia trees overhung the gate, leathery leaves drooping in the heat, and a border of pines, meant to provide shade and respite in the day, served at night to block all traces of moon and starlight, leaving the churchyard itself black as a…well, as a crypt.

Walking through the air felt like pushing aside curtains of black velvet, perfumed with an incense of turpentine from the sun-heated pines; endless layers of soft, pungent smothering. Nothing could have been farther from the cold purity of the Highlands than this stifling southern atmosphere. Still, faint patches of mist hung under the dark brick walls, and I could have wished not to recall Jamie’s story of the
tannasq
quite so vividly.

“We’ll find a place. Do you stay and hold the horses, Duncan.” Jamie slid down from the wagon’s seat and took me by the arm.

“We’ll find a nice wee spot by the wall, perhaps,” he said, guiding me toward the gate. “Ian and I will dig while you hold the light, and Fergus can stand guard.”

“What about Duncan?” I asked, with a backward glance. “Will he be all right?” The Scotsman was invisible, his tall, lanky form having faded into the larger blot comprising horses and wagon, but he was still clearly audible.

“He’ll be chief mourner,” Jamie said, with a hint of a smile in his voice. “Mind your head, Sassenach.” I ducked automatically beneath a low magnolia branch; I didn’t know whether Jamie could actually see in total darkness, or merely felt things by instinct, but I had never seen him stumble, no matter how dark the surroundings.

“Don’t you think someone’s going to notice a fresh grave?” It was not completely black in the churchyard, after all; once out from under the magnolias, I could make out the dim forms of gravestones, looking insubstantial but sinister in the dark, a faint mist rising from the thick grass about their feet.

The soles of my own feet tingled as we picked a ginger way through the stones. I seemed to feel silent waves of reproach at this unseemly intrusion wafting up from below. I barked my shin on a tombstone and bit my lip, stifling an urge to apologize to its owner.

“I expect they might.” Jamie let go of my arm to rummage in his coat. “But if the priest wanted money to bury Gavin, I shouldna think he’d trouble to dig him up again for nothing, aye?”

Young Ian materialized out of the darkness at my elbow, startling me.

“There’s open space by the north wall, Uncle Jamie,” he said, speaking softly in spite of the obvious fact that there was no one to hear. He paused, and drew slightly closer to me.

“It’s verra dark in here, no?” The boy sounded uneasy. He had had nearly as much to drink as Jamie or Fergus, but while the alcohol had imbued the older men with grim humor, it had clearly had a more depressing effect on Ian’s spirits.

“It is, aye. I’ve the bit of a candle I took from the tavern, though; wait a bit.” Faint rustlings announced Jamie’s search for flint and tinderbox.

The encompassing dark made me feel disembodied, like a ghost myself. I looked upward and saw stars, so faintly visible through the thick air that they shed no light upon the ground, but only gave a feeling of immense distance and infinite remoteness.

“It’s like the vigil of Easter.” Jamie’s voice came softly, accompanied by the small scratching sounds of a striking flint. “I saw the service once, at Notre Dame in Paris. Watch yourself, Ian, there’s a stone just there!” A thud and a stifled grunt announced that Ian had belatedly discovered the stone for himself.

“The church was all dark,” Jamie continued, “but the folk coming for the service would buy small tapers from the crones at the doors. It was something like this”—I felt, rather than saw, his motion at the sky above—“a great space above, all ringing wi’ the silence, and folk packed in on every side.” Hot as it was, I gave an involuntary shiver at these words, which conjured up a vision of the dead around us, crowding silently side by side, in anticipation of an imminent resurrection.

“And then, just when I thought I couldna bear the silence and the crowd, there came the priest’s voice from the door.
‘Lumen Christi!’
he called out, and the acolytes lit the great candle that he carried. Then from it they took the flame to their own tapers, and scampered up and down the aisles, passing the fire to the candles o’ the faithful.”

I could see his hands, lit faintly by the tiny sparks from his flint.

“Then the church came alive wi’ a thousand small flames, but it was that first candle that broke the dark.”

The scratching sounds ceased, and he took away the cupped hand that had shielded the newborn flame. The flame strengthened and lit his face from below, gilding the planes of high cheekbones and forehead, and shadowing the deep-set orbits of his eyes.

He lifted the candle, surveying the looming grave markers, eerie as a circle of standing stones.

“Lumen Christi,”
he said softly, inclining his head toward a granite pillar surmounted with a cross,
“et reguiescat in pace, amice.”
The half-mocking note had left his voice; he spoke with complete seriousness, and I felt at once oddly comforted, as though some watchful presence had withdrawn.

He smiled at me then, and handed me the candle.

“See can ye find a bit of wood for a torch, Sassenach,” he said. “Ian and I will take it in turns to dig.”

I was no longer nervous, but still felt like a grave robber, standing under a pine tree with my torch, watching Young Ian and Jamie take their turns in the deepening pit, their naked backs gleaming with sweat in the torchlight.

“Medical students used to pay men to steal fresh bodies from churchyards,” I said, handing my soiled kerchief to Jamie as he hauled himself out of the hole, grunting with effort. “That was the only way they could practice dissection.”

“Did they?” Jamie said. He wiped the sweat from his face and gave me a quick, wry glance. “Or do they?”

Luckily, it was too dark for Ian to notice my flush, despite the torchlight. It wasn’t the first slip I had made, nor was it likely to be the last, but most such inadvertencies resulted in nothing more than a quizzical glance, were they noticed at all. The truth simply was not a possibility that would occur to anyone.

“I imagine they do it now,” I admitted. I shivered slightly at the thought of confronting a freshly exhumed and unpreserved body, still smeared with the dirt of its desecrated grave. Cadavers embalmed and laid on a stainless steel surface were not particularly pleasant either, but the formality of their presentation served to keep the corruptive realities of death at some small distance.

I exhaled strongly through my nose, trying to rid myself of odors, imagined and remembered. When I breathed in, my nostrils were filled with the smell of damp earth and hot pitch from my pine torch, and the fainter, cooler echo of live scent from the pines overhead.

“They take paupers and criminals from the prisons, too.” Young Ian, who had evidently heard the exchange, if not understood it, took the opportunity to stop for a moment, wiping his brow as he leaned on the shovel.

“Da told me about one time he was arrested, when they took him to Edinburgh, and kept him in the Tolbooth. He was in a cell wi’ three other men, and one of them a fellow with the consumption, who coughed something dreadful, keeping the rest awake all night and all day. Then one night the coughing stopped, and they kent he was dead. But Da said they were so tired, they couldna do more than say a Pater Noster for his soul, and fall asleep.”

The boy paused and rubbed an itching nose.

“Da said he woke quite sudden wi’ someone clutching his legs and another someone takin’ him by the arms, liftin’ him up. He kicked and cried out, and the one who had his arms screeched and dropped him, so that he cracked his head on the stones. He sat up rubbin’ his pate and found himself staring at a doctor from the hospital and two fellows he’d brought along to carry awa’ the corpse to the dissecting room.”

Ian grinned broadly at the recollection, wiping his sweat-soaked hair out of his face.

“Da said he wasna sure who was most horrified, him or the fellows who’d got the wrong body. He did say as the doctor seemed regretful, though—said Da would have made a more interesting specimen, what wi’ his leg stump and all.”

Jamie laughed, stretching his arms to ease his shoulders. With face and torso streaked with red dirt, and his hair bound back with a kerchief round his forehead, he looked disreputable as any grave robber.

“Aye, I mind that story,” he said. “Ian did say after that as all doctors were ghouls, and wouldna have a thing to do with them.” He grinned at me; I had been a doctor—a surgeon—in my own time, but here I passed as nothing more than a wisewoman, skilled in the use of herbs.

“Fortunately, I’m no afraid of wee ghoulies, myself,” he said, and leaned down to kiss me briefly. His lips were warm, tasting of ale. I could see droplets of sweat caught in the curly hairs of his chest, and his nipples, dark buds in the dim light. A tremor that had nothing to do either with cold or with the eeriness of our surroundings ran down my spine. He saw it and his eyes met mine. He took a deep breath, and all at once I was conscious of the close fit of my bodice, and the weight of my breasts in the sweat-soaked fabric.

Jamie shifted himself slightly, plucking to ease the fit of his breeches.

“Damn,” he said softly. He lowered his eyes and turned away, mouth barely touched by a rueful smile.

I hadn’t expected it, but I recognized it, all right. A sudden surge of lust was a common, if peculiar, response to the presence of death. Soldiers feel it in the lull after battle; so do healers who deal in blood and struggle. Perhaps Ian had been more right than I thought about the ghoulishness of doctors.

Jamie’s hand touched my back and I started, showering sparks from the blazing torch. He took it from me and nodded toward a nearby gravestone.

“Sit down, Sassenach,” he said. “Ye shouldna be standing so long.” I had cracked the tibia of my left leg in the shipwreck, and while it had healed quickly, the leg still ached sometimes.

“I’m all right.” Still, I moved toward the stone, brushing against him as I passed. He radiated heat, but his naked flesh was cool to the touch, the sweat evaporating on his skin. I could smell him.

I glanced at him, and saw goose bumps rise on the fair flesh where I’d touched him. I swallowed, fighting back a sudden vision of tumbling in the dark, to a fierce blind coupling amid crushed grass and raw earth.

His hand lingered on my elbow as he helped me to a seat on the stone. Rollo was lying by its side, drops of saliva gleaming in the torchlight as he panted. The slanted yellow eyes narrowed at me.

“Don’t even think about it,” I said, narrowing my own eyes back at him. “Bite me, and I’ll cram my shoe down your throat so far you’ll choke.”

“Wuff!”
Rollo said, quite softly. He laid his muzzle on his paws, but the hairy ears were pricked, turned to catch the slightest sound.

Other books

Mistress of the Wind by Michelle Diener
Captive Heroes by Springer, Jan
Hot Pink in the City by Medeia Sharif
Garden Witch's Herbal by Ellen Dugan
Conclave by Harris, Robert
Eric S. Brown by Last Stand in a Dead Land
Dating A Cougar by Donna McDonald
Cold Feet in Hot Sand by Lauren Gallagher
The Unseelie King (The Kings Book 6) by Heather Killough-Walden