The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 105

   

He had vanished into the crowd like a grouse into heather. I turned slowly, surveying the terrace and lawns, but there wasn’t a sign of him among the milling crowd. I frowned against the bright sunlight, shading my eyes with my hand.

It wasn’t as though he were inconspicuous, after all; a Highlander with the blood of Viking giants in his veins, he stood head and shoulders above most men, and his hair caught the sun like polished bronze. To add icing to the cake, he was dressed today in his best to celebrate Jocasta’s wedding—a belted plaid in crimson and black tartan, with his good gray coat and weskit, and the gaudiest pair of red-and-black Argyle stockings ever to grace a Scotsman’s shins. He should have stood out like a splotch of blood on fresh linen.

I didn’t find him, but did see a familiar face. I stepped off the terrace and eeled my way through the knots of partygoers.

“Mr. MacLennan!” He turned toward my call, looking surprised, but then a cordial smile spread across his blunt features.

“Mrs. Fraser!”

“How lovely to see you,” I said, giving him my hand. “How are you?” He looked much better than when last seen, clean and decent in a dark suit and plain laced hat. There were hollows in his cheeks, though, and a shadow behind his eyes that remained even as he smiled at me.

“Oh . . . I’m well enough, ma’am. Quite well.”

“Are you—where are you living, these days?” That seemed a more delicate question than “Why aren’t you in jail?” No fool, he answered both questions.

“Och, well, your husband was sae kind as to write to Mr. Ninian there”—he nodded across the lawn toward the lean figure of Ninian Bell Hamilton, who was in the middle of a heated discussion of some kind—“and to tell him of my trouble. Mr. Ninian’s a great friend to the Regulation, ken—and a great friend of Judge Henderson’s, forbye.” He shook his head, mouth pursed in puzzlement.

“I couldna say quite how it fell out, but Mr. Ninian came and fetched me out of the gaol, and took me into his own household. So I am there, for the present. ’Twas kind—verra kind.” He spoke with evident sincerity, and yet with a certain air of abstraction. He fell silent then. He was still looking at me, but his eyes were blank. I groped for something to say, hoping to bring him back to the present, but a shout from Ninian brought him out of his trance, saving me the trouble. Abel excused himself politely to me and went to assist in the argument.

I strolled down the lawn, nodding to acquaintances over my fan. I was glad to see Abel again, and know he was physically well, at least—but I couldn’t deny that the sight of him cast a chill over my heart. I had the feeling that in fact, it made little difference to Abel MacLennan where his body resided; his heart still lay in the grave with his wife.

Why had Ninian brought him today? I wondered. Surely a wedding could not but recall his own marriage to him; weddings did that to everyone.

The sun had risen high enough to warm the air, but I shivered. The sight of MacLennan’s grief reminded me too much of the days after Culloden, when I had gone back to my own time, knowing Jamie dead. I knew too well that deadness of heart; the sense of sleepwalking through days and lying open-eyed at night, finding no rest, knowing only emptiness that was not peace.

Jocasta’s voice floated down from the terrace, calling to Ulysses. She had lost three husbands, and now was fixed to take a fourth. Blind she might be, but there was no deadness in her eyes. Did that mean she had not cared deeply for any of her husbands? I wondered. Or only that she was a woman of great strength, capable of overcoming grief, not once, but over and again?

I had done it once, myself—for Brianna’s sake. But Jocasta had no children; not now, at least. Had she once had them, and put aside the pain of a sundered heart, to live for a child?

I shook myself, trying to dispel such melancholy thoughts. It was, after all, a festive occasion, and a day to match. The dogwoods in the grove were in bloom, and courting bluebirds and cardinals shot in and out of the greening trees like bits of confetti, crazed with lust.

“But of course they have,” a woman was saying, in an authoritative tone of voice. “My God, they’ve shared a house for months now!”

“Aye, that’s so,” one of her companions agreed, sounding doubtful. “But ye wouldna think it from the looks of them. Why, they scarcely glance at each other! Ah . . . I mean—well, of course, she canna be looking at him, blind as she is, but ye’d think . . .”

It wasn’t only the birds, I thought, amused. A certain sense of rising sap suffused the whole gathering. Glancing up at the terrace, I could see young women clustered, tittering and gossiping in small groups like hens, while the men strode oh-so-casually up and down in front of them, gaudy as peacocks in their party clothes. I wouldn’t be surprised if at least a few engagements resulted from this celebration—and a few pregnancies as well. Sex was in the air; I could smell it, under the heady fragrances of spring flowers and cooking food.

The sense of melancholy had quite left me, though I still had a strong urge to find Jamie.

I had gone down one side of the lawn and up the other, but saw no sign of him anywhere between the big plantation house and the dock, where slaves in livery were still greeting latecomers arriving by water. Among those still expected—and very late indeed—was the priest who was to perform the wedding.

Father LeClerc was a Jesuit, bound from New Orleans to a mission near Quebec, but seduced from the strict path of duty by a substantial donation made by Jocasta to the Society of Jesus. Money might not buy happiness, I reflected, but it was a useful commodity, nonetheless.

I glanced in the other direction and stopped dead. At one side, Ronnie Campbell caught my eye and bowed; I lifted my fan in acknowledgment, but was too distracted to speak to him. I hadn’t found Jamie, but I had just spotted the likely reason for his abrupt disappearance. Ronnie’s father, Farquard Campbell, was coming up the lawn from the landing, accompanied by a gentleman in the red and fawn of His Majesty’s army, and another in naval uniform—Lieutenant Wolff.

The sight gave me an unpleasant shock. Lieutenant Wolff was not my favorite person. He wasn’t all that popular with anyone else who knew him, either.

I supposed it was reasonable for him to have been invited, as His Majesty’s navy was the principal buyer of River Run’s production of timber, tar, and turpentine, and Lieutenant Wolff was the navy’s representative in such matters. And it was possible that Jocasta had invited him for more personal reasons as well—the Lieutenant had at one point asked her to marry him. Not, as she had dryly noted, from any desire for her person, but rather to get his hands on River Run.

Yes, I could see her enjoying the Lieutenant’s presence here today. Duncan, less naturally given to ulterior motives and manipulations, might not.

Farquard Campbell had spotted me, and was making for me through the crowd, the armed forces in tow. I got my fan up and made the necessary facial adjustments for polite conversation, but—much to my relief—the Lieutenant spotted a servant carrying a tray of glasses across the terrace and sheared off in pursuit, abandoning his escort in favor of refreshment.

The other military gentleman glanced after him, but dutifully followed Farquard. I squinted at him, but he was no one I’d met before, I was sure. Since the removal of the last Highland regiment in the autumn, the sight of a red coat was unusual anywhere in the colony. Who could this be?

My features fixed in what I hoped was a pleasant smile, I sank into a formal curtsy, spreading my embroidered skirts to best advantage.

“Mr. Campbell.” I glanced covertly behind him, but Lieutenant Wolff had fortunately vanished in the pursuit of alcoholic sustenance.

“Mrs. Fraser. Your servant, ma’am.” Farquard made me a graceful leg in reply. An elderly, desiccated-looking man, Mr. Campbell was sedate as usual in black broadcloth, a small burst of ruffles at the throat being his only concession to the festivities.

He looked over my shoulder, frowning slightly in puzzlement. “I had seen—I thought I had seen your husband with you?”

“Oh. Well, I think he’s . . . er . . . gone . . .” I twiddled my fan delicately toward the trees where the necessary facilities lurked, separated from the main house by an aesthetic distance and a screen of small white pines.

“Ah, I see. Just so.” Campbell cleared his throat, and gestured to the man who accompanied him. “Mrs. Fraser, may I present Major Donald MacDonald?”

Major MacDonald was a rather hawk-nosed but handsome gentleman in his late thirties, with the weathered face and erect bearing of a career soldier, and a pleasant smile belied by a pair of sharp blue eyes, the same pale, vivid shade as Brianna’s dress.

“Your servant, ma’am.” He bowed, very gracefully. “May I say, ma’am, how particularly that color becomes you?”

“You may,” I said, relaxing a little. “Thank you.”

“The Major is but recently arrived in Cross Creek. I assured him he would find no greater opportunity to pursue acquaintance with his countrymen and familiarize himself with his surroundings.” Farquard swept a hand around the terrace, encompassing the party—which did indeed comprise a Who’s Who of Scottish society along the Cape Fear.

“Indeed,” the Major said politely. “I have not heard so many Scottish names since last I was in Edinburgh. Mr. Campbell gives me to understand that your husband is the nephew of Mrs. Cameron—or Mrs. Innes, perhaps I should say?”

“Yes. Have you met Mrs. . . . er . . . Innes yet?” I glanced toward the far end of the terrace. Still no sign of Duncan, let alone Roger or Jamie. Blast it, where was everybody? Holding summit conferences in the necessary house?

“No, but I shall look forward to presenting my compliments. The late Mr. Cameron was by way of being an acquaintance of my father, Robert MacDonald of Stornoway.” He inclined his wigged head a respectful inch in the direction of the small white marble building at the side of the lawn—the mausoleum that presently sheltered the fleshly remnants of Hector Cameron. “Has your husband any connection with the Frasers of Lovat, by chance?”

With an internal groan, I recognized a Scottish spiderweb in the making. The meeting of any two Scots invariably began with the casting out of skeins of inquiry until enough strands of relation and acquaintanceship had stuck to form a useful network. I tended to become entangled in the sticky strands of sept and clan, myself, ending up like a fat, juicy fly, thoroughly trapped and at the mercy of my questioner.

Jamie had survived the intrigues of French and Scottish politics for years by means of such knowledge, though—skating precariously along the secret strands of such webs, keeping away from the sticky snares of loyalty and betrayal that had doomed so many others. I settled myself to pay attention, struggling to place this MacDonald among the thousand others of his ilk.

MacDonald of Keppoch, MacDonald of the Isles, MacDonald of Clanranald, MacDonald of Sleat. How many kinds of MacDonald were there, anyway? I wondered, a little crossly. Surely one or two should be sufficient to most purposes.

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