The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 106

   

MacDonald of the Isles, evidently; the Major’s family hailed from the Isle of Harris. I kept one eye out during the interrogation, but Jamie had safely gone to earth.

Farquard Campbell—no mean player himself—seemed to be enjoying the verbal game of battledore and shuttlecock, his dark eyes flicking back and forth between me and the Major with a look of amusement. The amusement faded into a look of surprise as I finished a rather confused analysis of Jamie’s paternal lineage, in response to the Major’s expert catechism.

“Your husband’s grandfather was Simon, Lord Lovat?” Campbell said. “The Old Fox?” His voice rose slightly with incredulity.

“Well . . . yes,” I said, a little uneasily. “I thought you knew that.”

“Indeed,” said Farquard. He looked as though he had swallowed a brandied plum, noticing too late that the stone was still in it. He’d known Jamie was a pardoned Jacobite, all right, but plainly Jocasta hadn’t mentioned his close connection with the Old Fox—executed as a traitor for his role in the Stuart Rising. Most of the Campbells had fought on the Government side of that particular brouhaha.

“Yes,” MacDonald said, ignoring Campbell’s reaction. He frowned slightly in concentration. “I have the honor to be slightly acquainted with the present Lord Lovat—the title has been restored, I collect?”

He went on, turning to Campbell in explanation. “That would be Young Simon, who raised a regiment to fight the French in . . . ’58? No, ’57. Yes, ’57. A gallant soldier, excellent fighting man. And he would be your husband’s . . . nephew? No, uncle.”

“Half-uncle,” I clarified. Old Simon had been married three times, and made no secret of his extramarital by-blows—of which Jamie’s father had been one. No need to point that out, though.

MacDonald nodded, lean face clearing in satisfaction at having got it all neatly sorted. Farquard’s face relaxed a little, hearing that the family reputation had gone so far toward rehabilitation.

“Papist, of course,” MacDonald added, “but an excellent soldier, nonetheless.”

“Speaking of soldiers,” Campbell interrupted, “do you know . . .”

I breathed a sigh of relief that made my corset strings creak, as Mr. Campbell smoothly led the Major into an analysis of some past military event. The Major, it seemed, was not on active duty, but like many, presently retired on half-pay. Unless and until the Crown found some further use for his services, he was thus left to mooch round the Colonies in search of occupation. Peace was hard on professional soldiers.

Just wait, I thought, with a small premonitory shiver. Four years, or less, and the Major would be busy enough.

I caught a flash of tartan from the corner of my eye and turned to look, but it was neither Jamie nor Duncan. One less mystery, though; it was Roger, dark-haired and handsome in his kilt. His face lit as he spotted Brianna, and his stride lengthened. She turned her head, as though feeling his presence, and her own face brightened in answer.

He reached her side, and without the least acknowledgment of the gentleman with her, embraced her and kissed her soundly on the mouth. As they drew apart, he held out his arms for Jemmy, and dropped another kiss on the silky red head.

I returned to the conversation at hand, belatedly realizing that Farquard Campbell had been talking for some time without my having any notion what he had said. Seeing my bemusement, he smiled, a little wryly.

“I must go and pay my respects elsewhere, Mrs. Fraser,” he said. “If you will pardon me? I shall leave you to the Major’s excellent company.” He touched his hat courteously, and eeled off toward the house, perhaps intending to track down Lieutenant Wolff and stop him pocketing the silver.

Thus marooned with me, the Major cast about for suitable conversation, and fell back upon the most commonly asked question between new acquaintances.

“Are you and your husband long arrived in the colony, ma’am?”

“Not long,” I said, rather wary. “Three years or so. We live in a small settlement in the backcountry—” I waved my closed fan toward the invisible mountains to the west. “A place called Fraser’s Ridge.”

“Ah, yes. I have heard of it.” A muscle twitched near the corner of his mouth, and I wondered uneasily just what he had heard. Jamie’s still was an open secret in the backcountry, and among the Scottish settlers of the Cape Fear—in fact, several kegs of raw whisky from the still were sitting in plain sight by the stables, Jamie’s wedding present to his aunt and Duncan—but I hoped the secret wasn’t quite so open that an army officer newly arrived in the colony would already have heard about it.

“Tell me, Mrs. Fraser . . .” He hesitated, then plunged ahead. “Do you encounter a great deal of . . . factionalism in your area of the colony?”

“Factionalism? Oh, er . . . no, not a great deal.” I cast a wary eye toward Hector Cameron’s mausoleum, where Hermon Husband’s dark Quaker gray showed up like a blot against the pure white marble. Factionalism was a code word for the activities of men like Husband and James Hunter—Regulators.

The Governor’s militia action in December had quashed the violent demonstrations, but the Regulation was still a simmering pot under a very tight lid. Husband had been arrested and imprisoned for a short time in February on the strength of his pamphlets, but the experience had in no way softened either his disposition or his language. A boilover could happen at any time.

“I am pleased to hear it, ma’am,” Major MacDonald said. “Do you hear much news, remotely situated as you are?”

“Not a great deal. Er . . . nice day, isn’t it? We’ve been so fortunate in the weather this year. Was it an easy journey from Charleston? So early in the year—the mud . . .”

“Indeed, ma’am. We had some small difficulties, but no more than . . .”

The Major was assessing me quite openly as he chatted, taking in the cut and quality of my gown, the pearls at my throat and ears—borrowed from Jocasta—and the rings on my fingers. I was familiar with such a look; there was no hint of lechery or flirtation in it. He was simply judging my social standing and my husband’s level of prosperity and influence.

I took no offense. I was busy doing the same thing to him, after all. Well-educated and of good family; that much was plain from his rank alone, though the heavy gold signet on his right hand clinched the matter. Not personally well-off, though; his uniform was worn at the seams, and his boots were deeply scarred, though well-polished.

A light Scots accent with a hint of French gutturality—experience in Continental campaigns. And very newly arrived in the colony, I thought; his face was drawn from recent illness, and the whites of his eyes bore the slight tinge of jaundice common to new arrivals, who tended to contract everything from malaria to dengue fever, when exposed to the seething germ pools of the coastal towns.

“Tell me, Mrs. Fraser—” the Major began.

“You insult not only me, sir, but every man of honor here present!”

Ninian Bell Hamilton’s rather high-pitched voice rang out through a lull in the general conversation, and heads turned all over the lawn.

He was face-to-face with Robert Barlow, a man I had been introduced to earlier in the morning. A merchant of some kind, I vaguely recalled—from Edenton? Or possibly New Bern. A heavyset man with the look of one unused to contradiction, he was sneering openly at Hamilton.

“Regulators, you call them? Gaolbirds and rioters! You suggest that such men possess a sense of honor, do you?”

“I do not suggest it—I state it as fact, and will defend it as such!” The old gentleman drew himself upright, hand groping for a sword-hilt. Fortunately for the occasion, he wasn’t wearing a sword; none of the gentlemen present were, given the congeniality of the gathering.

Whether this fact affected Barlow’s behavior, I couldn’t have said, but he laughed contemptuously, and turned his back on Hamilton, to walk away. The elderly Scot, inflamed, promptly kicked Barlow in the buttocks.

Taken unaware and off balance, Barlow pitched forward, landing on hands and knees, his coattails ludicrously up over his ears. Whatever their respective political opinions, all the onlookers burst into laughter. Thus encouraged, Ninian puffed up like a bantam rooster and strutted round his fallen opponent to address him from the front.

I could have told him that this was a tactical error, but then, I had the benefit of seeing Barlow’s face, which was crimson with mortified rage. Eyes bulging, he scrambled awkwardly to his feet and launched himself with a roar, knocking the smaller man flat.

The two of them rolled in the grass, fists and coattails flying, to whoops of encouragement from the spectators. Wedding guests came rushing from lawn and terrace to see what was going on. Abel MacLennan pushed his way through the mob, obviously intent on offering support to his patron. Richard Caswell seized his arm to prevent him, and he swung round, pushing Caswell off balance.

James Hunter, lean face alight with glee, tripped Caswell, who sat down hard on the grass, looking surprised. Caswell’s son George let out a howl of outrage and punched Hunter in the kidney. Hunter whirled round and slapped George on the nose.

A number of ladies were shrieking—not all with shock. One or two appeared to be cheering on Ninian Hamilton, who had got temporarily atop his victim’s chest and was endeavoring to throttle him, though with little success, owing to Barlow’s thick neck and heavy stock.

I looked frantically round for Jamie—or Roger, or Duncan. Goddamn it, where were they all?

George Caswell had fallen back in surprise, hands to his nose, which was dribbling blood down his shirtfront. DeWayne Buchanan, one of Hamilton’s sons-in-law, was shoving his way purposefully through the gathering crowd. I didn’t know whether he meant to get his father-in-law off Barlow, or assist him in his attempt to murder the man.

“Oh, bloody hell,” I muttered to myself. “Here, hold this.” I thrust my fan at Major MacDonald, and hitched up my skirts, preparing to wade into the melee, and deciding whom to kick first—and where—for best effect.

“Do you want me to stop it?”

The Major, who had been enjoying the spectacle, looked disappointed at the thought, but resigned to duty. At my rather startled nod, he reached for his pistol, pointed it skyward, and discharged it into the air.

The bang was loud enough to temporarily silence everyone. The combatants froze, and in the momentary lull, Hermon Husband shoved his way into the scene.

“Friend Ninian,” he said, nodding cordially round. “Friend Buchanan. Allow me.” He grabbed the elderly Scot by both arms and lifted him bodily off Barlow. He gave James Hunter a warning look; Hunter gave an audible “Humph!” but retired a few steps.

The younger Mrs. Caswell, a woman of sense, had got her husband off the field of battle already, and was applying a handkerchief to his nose. DeWayne Buchanan and Abel MacLennan had each got hold of one of Ninian Hamilton’s arms, and were making a great show of restraining him as they marched him off toward the house—though it was reasonably apparent that either one of them could simply have picked him up and carried him.

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