The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 113

   

The fiddle had ceased, but he could hear the twang and throb of instruments being handled and tuned nearby. They were in the big drawing room, whose double doors could be thrown open to allow dancers to spill out across the foyer, when the time came. At the moment, there were only a few guests in the drawing room, engaged in casual conversation.

Roger made his way past Ulysses, who was standing at the hearth, immaculate in wig and green livery, a poker held at the ready as he supervised two maidservants in the making of a gigantic vat of fresh rum punch. His eyes flicked automatically to the door, registered Roger’s presence and identity, then returned to his business.

The musicians were huddled at the far end of the room, casting occasional thirsty glances at the hearth as they readied their instruments.

“What will you be giving us the day?” Roger inquired, pausing beside the fiddler. He smiled as the man turned round to him. “‘Ewie wi’ the Crooked Horn,’ perhaps, or ‘Shawn Bwee’?”

“Oh, God love ye, sir, nothin’ fancy.” The conductor of the small ensemble, a cricketlike Irishman whose bent back was belied by the brightness of his eyes, waved a hand in cordial scorn at his motley crew of musicians.

“They ain’t up to more than jigs and reels. No more are the folk as will be dancin’, though,” he added, practically. “’Tisn’t the Assembly Rooms in Dublin, after all, nor even Edenton; a good fiddler can keep ’em up to snuff.”

“And that would be you, I expect?” Roger said with a smile, nodding at the cracked fiddle case the conductor had set on a whatnot, carefully out of the way of being stepped or sat on.

“That would be me,” the gentleman agreed, with a graceful bow of acknowledgment. “Seamus Hanlon, sir—your servant.”

“I am obliged, sir. Roger MacKenzie, of Fraser’s Ridge.” He returned the bow, taking pleasure in the old-fashioned formality, and clasped Hanlon’s hand briefly, careful of the twisted fingers and knobby joints. Hanlon saw his care of the arthritic hand and gave a brief grimace of deprecation.

“Ah, they’ll be fine with a drop of lubrication, so they will.” Hanlon flexed one hand experimentally, then flipped the fingers in dismissal, fixing Roger with a bright glance.

“And yourself, sir; I felt the calluses on your fingertips. Not a fiddler, perhaps, but would ye be after playin’ some stringed instrument?”

“Only to pass the time of an evening; nothing like you gentlemen.” Roger nodded politely toward the ensemble, which, now unpacked, boasted a battered cello, two viols, a trumpet, a flute, and something which he thought might have started life as a hunting horn, though it appeared to have been amended since by the addition of several odd loops of tubing that stuck out in different directions.

Hanlon eyed him shrewdly, taking in his breadth of chest.

“And hark at the voice in him! Sure, and you’re a singer, Mr. MacKenzie?”

Roger’s reply was interrupted by a loud thump and a dolorous twang behind him. He whirled to see the cello player inflating himself over his instrument in the manner of a hen with a very large chick, to protect it from further injury by the gentleman who had evidently kicked it carelessly in passing.

“Watch yourself, then!” the cellist snapped. “Clumsy sot!”

“Oh?” The intruder, a stocky man in naval uniform, glowered menacingly at the cellist. “You dare . . . dare shpeak to me . . .” His face was flushed an unhealthy red, and he swayed slightly as he stood; Roger could smell the fumes of alcohol from a distance of six feet.

The officer raised a forefinger to the cellist, and appeared to be on the point of speech. A tongue tip showed pinkly between his teeth, but no words emerged. His empurpled jowls quivered for a moment, then he abandoned the attempt, turned on his heel, and made off, swerving narrowly to avoid an incoming footman with a tray of drinks, and caroming off the doorjamb as he passed into the corridor.

“’Ware, then, Mr. O’Reilly.” Seamus Hanlon spoke dryly to the cellist. “Were we near the sea, I should reckon there’d be a press-gang waitin’ for ye, the instant ye set foot outside. As it is, I’d put no odds on him layin’ for ye with a marlinspike or something of the kind.”

O’Reilly spat eloquently on the floor.

“I know him,” he said contemptuously. “Wolff, he’s called. Dog, more like, and a poor dog at that. He’s tight as a tick—he’ll not remember me, an hour hence.”

Hanlon squinted thoughtfully at the doorway through which the Lieutenant had vanished.

“Well, that’s as may be,” he allowed. “But I know the gentleman, too, and I do believe his mind may be somewhat sharper than his behavior might suggest.” He stood for a moment, tapping the bow of his fiddle thoughtfully against the palm of his hand, then turned his head toward Roger.

“Fraser’s Ridge, ye said? Will ye be a kinsman of Mrs. Cameron’s—or Mrs. Innes, I should say?” he corrected himself.

“I’m married to Jamie Fraser’s daughter,” Roger said patiently, having discovered that this was the most efficient description, as most of the county appeared to know who Jamie Fraser was, and it prevented further questions regarding Roger’s own family connections.

“Ho-ho,” Seamus said, looking visibly impressed. “Well, then. Hum!”

“What’s that bladder doing here, anyway?” the cellist demanded, still glaring after the departed officer. He patted his instrument soothingly. “Everyone knows he meant to wed Mrs. Cameron and have River Run for himself. I wonder he’s the tripes to show his face today!”

“Perhaps he’s come to show there are no hard feelings,” Roger suggested. “A civil gesture—best man won and all that, aye?”

The musicians emitted a medley of sniggers and guffaws at this suggestion.

“Maybe,” said the flutist, shaking his head over his instrument. “But if you’re any friend to Duncan Innes, tell him to watch his back in the dancin’.”

“Aye, do that,” Seamus Hanlon concurred. “Be off with ye, young man, and speak to him—but see ye come back.”

He crooked a finger at the waiting footman, and scooped a cup neatly from the proffered tray. He lifted this in salute, grinning at Roger over its rim. “It may be you’ll know a tune or two that’s new to me.”

42

THE DEASIL CHARM

BRIANNA SAT BACK in the leather wing chair before the hearth, nursing Jemmy as she watched her great-aunt ready herself for the wedding.

“What you think, then?” Phaedre asked, dipping the silver comb into a small pot of pomade. “Dress it up high, with the curls over the top?” Her voice was hopeful, but wary. She disapproved overtly of her mistress’s refusal to wear a wig, and would do her level best to create a similarly fashionable effect with Jocasta’s own hair, if allowed.

“Tosh,” said Jocasta. “This isn’t Edinburgh, child, let alone London.” She leaned back, head lifted and eyes closed, basking. Bright spring sunshine poured through the panes, sparking off the silver comb, and making dark shadows of the slave’s hands against the nimbus of shining white hair.

“Maybe not, but ’taint the wild Caribee nor the backcountry, neither,” Phaedre countered. “You the mistress here; this your weddin’. Everybody be lookin’ at you—you wantin’ to shame me, wear your hair down your shoulders like a squaw, and everybody be thinkin’ I don’t know my business?”

“Oh, heaven forbid.” Jocasta’s wide mouth twisted with an irritable humor. “Dress it simply, if you please, swept back and put up with combs. Perhaps my niece will let you show off your skill on her locks.”

Phaedre cast a narrow glance over her shoulder at Brianna, who simply smiled and shook her head. She’d worn a lace-edged cap for the sake of public decency, and wasn’t disposed to fuss with her hair. The slave snorted, and resumed her attempt to cajole Jocasta. Brianna closed her eyes, letting the amicable bickering recede into the background. Warm sun fell through the casement over her feet, and the fire purred and crackled at her back, embracing her like the old woolen shawl she had wrapped about herself and little Jem.

Beyond the voices of Jocasta and Phaedre, she could hear the thrum of the house below. Every room in the house was bursting with guests. Some were staying at nearby plantations, and had ridden in for the festivities, but enough were staying at River Run overnight that all the bedchambers were full, with guests sleeping five and six to a bed, and more on pallets in the tents by the river landing.

Brianna eyed the expanse of Jocasta’s big tester bed enviously. Between the exigencies of travel, Jemmy, and the crowded conditions at River Run, she and Roger hadn’t slept together in more than a week, and weren’t likely to, until they returned to the Ridge.

Not that sleeping together was the major concern, nice as it was. The tug of the baby’s mouth on her breast aroused a number of nonmaternal urges elsewhere, which required both Roger and a little privacy for satisfaction. They had started something promising the night before, in the pantry, but had been interrupted by one of the kitchen slaves, coming in to fetch a cheese. Perhaps the stable? She stretched her legs out, toes curling, and wondered whether the grooms slept in the stable or not.

“Well, I shall wear the brilliants, then, but only to please you, a nighean.” Jocasta’s humorous voice pulled her out of the alluring vision of a dark, hay-lined stall, and Roger’s body, nak*d limbs half-seen in the gloom.

She glanced up from Jemmy’s blissful suckling, to where Jocasta sat upon the window seat, the spring light through the casement falling across her face. She looked abstracted, Bree thought, as though she were listening to something faint and far-off, that only she could hear. Maybe the hum of the wedding guests below.

The murmur in the house below reminded her of her mother’s summer hives; a thrum that you could hear if you put your ear against one of the bee gums, a distant sound of busy content. The product of this particular swarm was talk, rather than honey, though the intent was similar—the laying up of reserves to see them through bleak and nectarless days of deprivation.

“That will do, that will do.” Jocasta waved Phaedre away, getting to her feet. She shooed the maid out of the room, then stood tapping her fingers restlessly on the dressing table, clearly thinking of further details that should be attended to. Jocasta’s brows drew together, and she pressed two fingers against the skin above her eyes.

“Have you got a headache, Auntie?” Brianna kept her voice low, so as not to disturb Jemmy, who was nearly asleep. Jocasta dropped her hand and turned toward her niece with a small, wry smile.

“Och, it’s nothing. Whenever the weather turns, my poor head turns with it!”

In spite of the smile, Brianna could see small lines of pain tugging at the corners of Jocasta’s eyes.

“Jem’s nearly finished. I’ll go and fetch Mama, shall I? She could make you a tisane.”

Jocasta flapped a hand in dismissal, pushing away the pain with an obvious effort.

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