Dawn on a Distant Shore Page 16

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As long as they weren't overly interested in the contents of the library, she reminded herself.

Voices outside, coming closer. Liam and Curiosity, and perhaps one of Curiosity's daughters or Martha Southern, up from the village to bring a covered dish or a pound of butter, for they kept no cow here on the mountain. She had good neighbors; they did what they could to help. Elizabeth knew that she should rouse herself, put the babies in their cradle, her clothing to rights, comb out her hair, wash her face, make tea, help with the corn bread, the endless laundering of swaddling clothes, the mending. The ash barrel, the candle box, the spindle, the mortar and pestle--they all called out to her. But the fire crackled peaceably and the babies were so heavy, pinning her down to her chair, to the earth itself: it felt as if she would never be able to stand on her own two feet, to move unencumbered, ever again.

And still, and still. She could not look at them without having her throat close with tears that were equal parts exhaustion and joy: Mathilde's round cheeks working rhythmically even in her sleep; Daniel's small hand spread out on the white skin of her breast.

Voices closer still; Hannah listening now, too, her head cocked to one side, plaits swinging free to her waist. Curiosity must be in the middle of a story. She had so many of them, but the children were always asking for more. They were all storytellers, these people who carved out lives for themselves on the edge of the frontier. It would be years before she had heard all of Nathaniel's.

With her husband's image foremost in her mind, Elizabeth finally let sleep claim her, thinking of the stories he might bring back with him from Montréal, and wondering how much longer it would be before she would hear his voice again.

Deeply asleep, she did not see the flush of excitement and pleasure on Hannah's face at the sound of steps on the porch. Her chores forgotten, Elizabeth and the babies forgotten, Hannah flew across the room as the door opened for the travelers: her aunt Many-Doves with a wide smile and a cradleboard peeking over her shoulder; Doves' husband, Runs-from-Bears, grinning at her as he swung a willow carry-frame to the floor; and Falling-Day, wrapped in a mantle of fisher pelts the same deep color as her eyes and hair, so much like Hannah's own. With small sounds of welcome, of relief, of joy beyond bearing, Hannah flung herself into her grandmother's open arms.

5

The Somervilles' basement kitchen was as deep and dim as a cave, but there was nothing cool about it: the combined heat of hearth and ovens had set even the walls to sweating. From a remote corner where they were supposed to be waiting to resume their day-long card game with Martin Fink, Nathaniel and Robbie watched the man scramble to send course after course up to Giselle and her guests.

She hadn't lost her appetite for the unusual. In addition to platters of fancy meat pastries, tureens of soup and ragout, a suckling pig, roast mutton, a haunch of venison, three kinds of fish, every manner of pickled or potted vegetable, and breads and rolls stacked in elaborate patterns, there had been a roast swan shouldered by not two but four serving men. Dressed again in its own white feathers after being stuffed, the long neck held up by hidden skewers, the bird went up the stairs, surrounded by doves baked in nests of puff pastry.

Now Fink was laboring over a huge meringue, decorating it with candied fruit. It reminded Nathaniel of the powdered wigs that had gone out of fashion not so long ago. The cook circled the platter with one eye squeezed shut and a finger pressed to his mouth. Finally he stood back, looked over at the men in the corner, winked conspiratorially, and burst into noisy song. Dish by dish, his mood improved and his songs became louder.

"Aye, sing awa', ye daft bugger," muttered Robbie. "The man canna wait tae take the rest o' the silver frae ye, laddie." He might rarely play cards, but Robbie was having a hard time purposely losing to a half-drunk Alsatian cook with the habit of singing publicly, and off-key. In a burst of winner's generosity, Fink had offered them the finest his kitchen had to offer, but Robbie had accepted only bread and some cold venison. Now he tore off great chunks, never taking his eyes from the cook.

Nathaniel swallowed down a yawn. There would be at least another hour of this: the servants were fussing over blue-veined cheeses, fruit compotes, liquors and coffees and drinking chocolate. Things he had never heard of before he came to Montréal, or thought of much since leaving it. Suddenly the wish to be home was strong enough to make him get to his feet. He pulled on his mantle and picked up his rifle by its sling and slipped it over his shoulder. "I think I'll have a look around upstairs until Fink's ready to deal the next hand."

Robbie gaped up at him. "And how d'ye plan tae do that, wi' a hoose fu' o' redcoats? I suppose Giselle has a secret stair hidden awa'?"

"Not so secret," said Nathaniel. "I wouldn't want to guess how many men know about it, but it's likely that a few of them are at the dinner table right now."

"Gin that's the case," said Robbie, tucking the remainder of his bread and cheese into his sack and lumbering to his feet, "I micht as weel come wi' ye. Yon glaikit lump"--he pointed at Fink with his chin--"will ha' nae use for us afore the eatin's done. Tell him we're goin' tae empty our bladders."

It was good to be out of the kitchens, away from the accumulated smells of a thousand meals. Nathaniel drew in cold air and paused in the courtyard, listening. There was no sign of the guard; they were probably warming themselves inside, sloppy with Somerville away.

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