The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 102

   

Private Ogilvie has little Recollection of specific Names overheard, as he had no Knowledge that Bonnet was of Interest, and mentioned the Matter to me only as a curious Piece of Information. One Name mentioned was “Butler,” he says, but he is uncertain whether this Name had aught to do with Bonnet. Another name was “Karen,” but Ogilvie does not know whether this pertained to a Woman or perhaps to a Ship.

A Warehouse which he supposed to be a particular Building indicated in the Conversation—though he freely admits that he is uncertain of this—happened to be at no great Distance from the Shipyard, and when he told me of his Intelligence, I took it upon myself to pass by this Building and make Enquiries concerning its Ownership. The Building is owned jointly by two Partners: one Ronald Priestly and one Phillip Wylie. I have no Information concerning either Man at Present, but will continue my Enquiries as my Time permits.

Having learned the Above, I have made an Effort to solicit Conversation concerning Bonnet in the local Taprooms, but to little Effect. I should say that the Name is known, but few wish to speak of him.

Your most obedient servant,

Archibald Hayes, Lieutenant

67th Highland Regiment

All the normal noises of the house were still around us, but Bree and I seemed suddenly to be together in a small, clear bubble of silence, where time had abruptly stopped.

I felt reluctant to put down the letter, for that would mean that time would go on, and something must at that point be done. At the same time, I wanted not merely to put it down but to throw it into the fire, and pretend neither of us had seen it.

Then Jemmy began to cry upstairs, Brianna jerked in response and turned toward the door, and things began to move normally again.

I set the letter down in a space by itself, and returned to the rest of the mail, setting things tidily aside for Jamie’s later attention, putting the newspapers and periodicals into a neat stack, untying the string round the parcel; as I had supposed, it was a book—Tobias Smollett’s The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker. I wound up the string and tucked it into my pocket, while all the time a small “Now-what, now-what” beat in the back of my mind like a metronome.

Brianna came back, carrying Jemmy, who was red and creased from his nap, and obviously in that state of mind where one rouses from sleep to a dazed irritation at the intrusive demands of consciousness. I sympathized.

She sat down, pulled down the neck of her shift, and put the baby to her breast. His cries ceased like magic, and I had a moment of intense wishfulness that I could do something that immediately effective for her. As it was, she looked pale, but composed.

I had to say something.

“I am sorry, sweetheart,” I said. “I tried to stop him—Jamie, I mean. I know he didn’t mean you to know about it. To worry about it.”

“That’s okay. I already knew.” Reaching across one-handed, she slid one of the ledgers out of the stack Jamie kept on his desk, and holding it by the spine, shook out a folded letter. She nodded over Jemmy’s head at it.

“Look at that. I found it while you were gone with the militia.”

I read Lord John’s account of the duel between Bonnet and Captain Marsden, feeling a coldness gather beneath my breastbone. I hadn’t been under any illusions regarding Bonnet’s character, but I hadn’t known that he had that much skill. I greatly preferred dangerous criminals to be incompetent.

“I thought maybe Lord John was just answering a casual question for Da—but I guess not. What do you think?” Bree asked. Her tone was cool, almost detached, as though she were inquiring my opinion of a hair-ribbon or a shoe-buckle. I looked up at her sharply.

“What do you think?” It was Brianna who was important in this—or that was my opinion.

“About what?” Her eyes slid away from mine, glancing off the letter, then fastening themselves on the curve of Jemmy’s head.

“Oh, the price of tea in China, for starters,” I said, with some irritation. “Going on promptly to the topic of Stephen Bonnet, if you like.” It felt oddly shocking to say the name out loud; we had all avoided it for months, by unspoken consent.

Her teeth were fastened in her lower lip. She kept her eyes fixed on the floor for a moment, then shook her head, very slightly.

“I don’t want to hear about him, or think about him,” she said, very evenly. “And if I ever see him again, I might just . . . just . . .” She shuddered violently, then looked up at me, eyes fierce and sudden.

“What’s wrong with him?” she cried. “How could he do this?” Her clenched fist struck her thigh, and Jemmy, startled, lost his grip and began to wail.

“Your father, you mean—not Bonnet.”

She nodded, pressing Jemmy back toward her breast, but he had picked up her agitation, and was squirming and howling. I reached down and took him, hoisting him to my shoulder and patting his back in automatic comfort. Bree’s hands, left empty, fastened on her knees, crumpled the cloth of her skirt.

“Why couldn’t he leave Bonnet alone?” She had to raise her voice to be heard above the baby’s wailing, and the bones of her face seemed to have shifted, so that the skin looked tight-drawn over them.

“Because he’s a man—and a bloody Highlander,” I said. “‘Live and let live’ is not in their vocabulary.” Milk was dripping slowly from her nipple onto the fabric of her shift; I reached out one-handed and tweaked the cloth up to cover her. She put a hand over her breast and pressed hard to stop the milk.

“What does he mean to do, though? If he finds him.”

“When he finds him, I’m afraid,” I said reluctantly. “Because I don’t believe he’s going to stop looking until he does. As to what he’ll do then . . . well . . . then he’ll kill him, I suppose.” It sounded oddly offhand, put that way, and yet I didn’t see any other way of putting it, really.

“You mean he’ll try to kill him.” She glanced at the letter from Lord John, then away, swallowing. “What if he . . .”

“Your father has a great deal of experience in killing people,” I said bleakly. “In fact, he’s awfully good at it—though he hasn’t done it for some time.”

This didn’t seem to reassure her to any great extent. It hadn’t reassured me, either.

“It’s such a big place,” she murmured, shaking her head. “America, I mean. Why couldn’t he just—go away? Far away?” An excellent question. Jemmy was snorting, rubbing his face furiously in my shoulder, but no longer screaming.

“I was rather hoping that Stephen Bonnet would have the good sense to go and pursue his smuggling in China or the West Indies, but I suppose he has local connections that he didn’t want to abandon.” I shrugged, patting Jemmy.

Brianna let go of her skirt and reached for the baby, who was still twisting like an eel.

“Well, he doesn’t know he has Sherlock Fraser and his sidekick Lord John Watson on his trail, after all.” It was a brave try, but her lip trembled as she said it, and she bit the lower one again. I hated to cause her more worry, but there was no point now in avoiding things.

“No, but he very likely will, before too long,” I said reluctantly. “Lord John is very discreet—Private Ogilvie isn’t. If Jamie goes on asking questions—and he will, I’m afraid—his interest is going to be rather widely known before long.” I wasn’t sure whether Jamie had hoped to discover Bonnet quickly and take him unawares—or whether his plan was to smoke Bonnet out into the open by means of his inquiries. Or whether he meant in fact to draw Bonnet’s attention deliberately, and cause him to come to us. The last possibility made me a little weak in the knees, and I sat down heavily on the stool.

Brianna drew a slow, deep breath and let it out through her nose, settling the baby back at her breast.

“Does Roger know? I mean, is he in on this—this—bloody vendetta?”

I shook my head.

“I don’t think so. I mean, I’m sure not. He would have told you—wouldn’t he?”

Her expression eased a little, though a shadow of doubt still darkened her eyes.

“I’d hate to think he’d keep something like that from me. On the other hand,” she added, voice sharpening a little in accusation, “you did.”

I felt the sting of it, and pressed my lips tight together.

“You said that you didn’t want to think of Stephen Bonnet,” I said, looking away from the turbulence of feeling in her face. “Naturally not. I—we—didn’t want you to have to.” With a certain feeling of inevitability, I realized that I was being drawn into the vortex of Jamie’s intentions, through no consent of my own.

“Now, look,” I said briskly, sitting up straight and giving Brianna a sharp look. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to look for Bonnet, and I’ve done all I could to discourage Jamie from doing it. In fact,” I added ruefully, with a nod toward Lord John’s letter, “I thought I had discouraged him. But apparently not.”

A look of determination was hardening Brianna’s mouth, and she settled herself more solidly in the chair.

“I’ll bloody discourage him,” she said.

I gave her a look, considering. If anyone had the necessary stubbornness and force of character to sway Jamie from his chosen path, it would be his daughter. That was, however, a very large “if.”

“You can try,” I said, a little dubiously.

“Don’t I have the right?” Her initial shock had vanished, and her features were back under control, her expression cold and hard. “Isn’t it for me to say whether I want . . . what I want?”

“Yes,” I agreed, a twinge of uneasiness rippling down my back. Fathers were inclined to think they had rights, too. So were husbands. But perhaps that was better left unsaid.

A momentary silence fell between us, broken only by Jemmy’s noises, and the calling of crows outside. Almost by impulse, I asked the question that had risen to the surface of my mind.

“Brianna. What do you want? Do you want Stephen Bonnet dead?”

She glanced at me, then away, looking out the window while she patted Jemmy’s back. She didn’t blink. Finally, her eyes closed briefly, then opened to meet mine.

“I can’t,” she said, low-voiced. “I’m afraid if I ever let that thought in my mind . . . I’d never be able to think about anything else, I’d want it so much. And I will be damned if I’ll let . . . him . . . ruin my life that way.”

Jemmy gave a resounding belch, and spit up a little milk. Bree had an old linen towel across her shoulder, and deftly wiped his chin with it. Calmer now, he had lost his look of vexed incomprehension, and was concentrating intently on something over his mother’s shoulder. Following the direction of his clear blue gaze, I saw the shadow of a spiderweb, high up in the corner of the window. A gust of wind shook the window frame, and a tiny spot moved in the center of the web, very slightly.

“Yeah,” Brianna said, very softly. “I do want him dead. But I want Da and Roger alive, more.”

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