The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 119

   

“Aye, niece?” she said, having adjusted her skirts over her knees. “What is it, then?”

“Well,” I said, taking a deep breath, “it’s to do with Duncan. You see . . .”

And she did. Her face grew quite blank with astonishment as I began to talk, but I was conscious of a growing sense of something else in her attitude as she listened—almost . . . relief, I thought, surprised.

Her lips pursed in absorption, the blind blue eyes fixed in her usual unsettling way, a little over my right shoulder. There was concern in her manner, but no great distress. Her expression was altering, in fact, changing from startlement to the look of one who suddenly finds an explanation for a previously troubling circumstance—and is both relieved and satisfied to have discovered it.

It occurred to me that she and Duncan had been living under the same roof for more than a year, and had been engaged to be married for months. Duncan’s attitude toward her in public was always respectful—even deferential—and thoughtful, but he made no physical gestures of tenderness or possession toward her. That was not unusual in the least, for the times; though some gentlemen were demonstrative toward their wives, others were not. But perhaps he hadn’t made such gestures in private, either, and she had expected them.

She had been beautiful, was handsome still, and quite accustomed to the admiration of men; sightless or not, I had seen her flirt skillfully with Andrew MacNeill, Ninian Bell Hamilton, Richard Caswell—even with Farquard Campbell. Perhaps she had been surprised, and even mildly discomfited, to provoke no apparent show of physical interest from Duncan.

Now she knew why, though, and drew in a deep breath, shaking her head slowly.

“My God, the poor man,” she said. “To suffer such a thing, and come to terms with it and then, all at once, to have it be dragged up afresh to worry him. Dear Bride, why cannot the past leave us be in what peace we have made with it?” She looked down, blinking, and I was both surprised and touched to see that her eyes were moist.

A large presence loomed up suddenly beyond her, and I glanced up to see Father LeClerc hovering over us, like a sympathetic thundercloud in his black habit.

“Is there trouble?” he said to me, in French. “Monsieur Duncan, he has suffered some injury?”

Jocasta didn’t speak more than “Comment allez-vous?” French, but was clearly able to understand the tone of the question, as well as to pick out Duncan’s name.

“Don’t tell him,” she said to me, with some urgency, putting her hand on my knee.

“No, no,” I assured her. I looked up at the priest, flicking my fingers in indication that there was nothing to worry about.

“Non, non,” I said in turn to him. “C’est rien.” It’s nothing.

He frowned at me, uncertain, then glanced at Jocasta.

“A difficulty of the marriage bed, is it?” he asked bluntly, in French. My face must have betrayed dismay at this, for he gestured discreetly downward, toward the front of his habit. “I heard the word ‘scrotum,’ Madame, and think you do not speak of animals.”

I realized—a good bit too late—that while Father LeClerc spoke no English, he most certainly spoke Latin.

“Merde,” I said under my breath, causing Jocasta, who had glanced up sharply at the word “scrotum” herself, to turn back toward me. I patted her hand reassuringly, trying to make up my mind what to do. Father LeClerc was regarding us with curiosity, but also with great kindness in his soft brown eyes.

“I’m afraid he’s guessed the general shape of things,” I said apologetically to Jocasta. “I think perhaps I had better explain.”

Her upper teeth fastened over her lower lip, but she made no demur, and I explained matters in French, as briefly as I could. The priest’s eyebrows rose, and he clutched automatically for the wooden rosary that hung from his belt.

“Oui, merde, Madame,” he said. “Quelle tragédie.” He crossed himself briefly with the crucifix, then quite unself-consciously wiped the grease from his beard onto his sleeve, and sat down beside Jocasta.

“Ask her, please, Madame, what is her desire in this matter,” he said to me. The tone was polite, but it was an order.

“Her desire?”

“Oui. Does she wish still to be married to Monsieur Duncan, even knowing this? For see you, Madame, by the laws of Holy Mother Church, such an impediment to consummation is a bar to true marriage. I ought not to administer the sacrament of matrimony, knowing this. However—” he hesitated, pursing his lips in thought as he glanced at Jocasta. “However, the purpose of such provision is the intent that marriage shall be a fruitful union, if God so wills. In this case, there is no question of God willing such a thing. So, you see . . .” He raised one shoulder in a Gallic shrug.

I translated this question to Jocasta, who had been squinting toward the priest, as though she could divine his meaning by sheer force of will. Enlightened, her face grew blank, and she sat back a little. Her face had assumed a MacKenzie look; that characteristic calm, still mask that meant a great deal of furious thinking was going on behind it.

I was slightly disturbed, and not only on Duncan’s behalf. It hadn’t occurred to me that this revelation could prevent the wedding. Jamie wanted his aunt protected, and Duncan provided for. The marriage had seemed the perfect answer; he would be perturbed if things should come unstuck at this late date.

After only a moment, though, Jocasta stirred, letting out her breath in a deep sigh.

“Well, thank Christ I’d the luck to get a Jesuit,” she said dryly. “One of them could argue the Pope out of his drawers, let alone deal wi’ a small matter of reading the Lord’s mind. Aye, tell him I do desire to be married, still.”

I conveyed this to Father LeClerc, who frowned slightly, examining Jocasta with great attention. Unaware of this scrutiny, she raised one brow, waiting for his reply.

He cleared his throat, and spoke, his eyes still on her, though he was speaking to me.

“Tell her this, Madame, if you please. While it is true that procreation is the basis of this law of the Church, that is not the only matter to consider. For marriage—true marriage of a man and woman—this . . . union of the flesh, it is important of itself. The language of the rite—the two shall become one flesh, it says, and there is reason for that. Much happens between two people who share a bed, and joy in each other. That is not all a marriage is, but it is something, truly.”

He spoke with great seriousness, and I must have looked surprised, for he smiled slightly, now looking directly at me.

“I have not always been a priest, Madame,” he said. “I was married once. I know what that is, as I know what it is to put aside forever that . . . fleshly . . . part of life.” The wooden beads of his rosary clicked softly together as he shifted.

I nodded, took a deep breath, and translated this directly as he had said it. Jocasta listened, but took no time for thought this time; her mind was made up.

“Tell him I thank him for his advice,” she said, with only the slightest edge in her voice. “I too have been married before—more than once. And with his help, I shall be married once again. Today.”

I translated, but he had already taken her meaning from her upright posture and the tone of her voice. He sat for a moment, rubbing his beads between his fingers, then nodded.

“Oui, Madame,” he said. He reached over and squeezed her hand in gentle encouragement. “Tally-ho, Madame!”

45

IF IT QUACKS . . .

WELL, THAT WAS ONE DOWN, I thought, mounting the stairs to the attic. Next on the agenda of pressing affairs, the slave Betty. Had she really been drugged? It had been more than two hours since Jamie had discovered her in the kitchen garden, but I thought I might still be able to discern symptoms, if she had been as badly affected as he had described her. I heard the muffled chime of the grandfather clock far below. One, two, three. An hour left before the wedding—though it could easily be postponed a bit, if Betty required more attention than I expected.

Given the undesirable position of Catholics in the colony, Jocasta would not offend her guests—mostly Protestants of one stripe or another—by obliging them to witness the Popish ceremony itself. The marriage would be performed discreetly, in her boudoir, and then the newlywed couple would descend the stairs arm-in-arm, to celebrate with their friends, all of whom could then diplomatically pretend that Father LeClerc was merely an eccentrically dressed wedding guest.

As I neared the attic, I was surprised to hear a murmur of voices above. The door to the female slaves’ dormitory stood ajar; I pushed it open, to discover Ulysses standing at the head of one narrow bed, arms folded, looking like an avenging angel carved in ebony. Obviously, he considered this unfortunate occurrence to be a grave dereliction of duty on Betty’s part. A small, dapper man in a frock coat and a large wig stooped by her side, some small object in his hand.

Before I could speak, he pressed this against the maid’s limp arm. There was a small, sharp click! and he removed the object, leaving a rectangle of welling blood, a rich dark red against the slave’s brown skin. The drops bloomed, merged, and began to trickle down her arm and into a bleeding bowl at her elbow.

“A scarificator,” the little man explained to Ulysses, with some pride, displaying his object. “A great improvement over such crudities as lancets and fleams. Got it from Philadelphia!”

The butler bent his head courteously, either in acceptance of the invitation to examine the instrument, or acknowledgment of its distinguished provenance.

“I am sure Mistress Cameron is most obliged for your kind condescension, Dr. Fentiman,” he murmured.

Fentiman. So, this was the medical establishment of Cross Creek. I cleared my throat and Ulysses lifted his head, eyes alert.

“Mistress Fraser,” he said, with a small bow. “Dr. Fentiman has just been—”

“Mistress Fraser?” Doctor Fentiman had swung round, and was eyeing me with the same sort of suspicious interest with which I was viewing him. Evidently he’d been hearing things, too. Manners triumphed, though, and he made me a leg, one hand to the bosom of his satin waistcoat.

“Your servant, ma’am,” he said, wobbling slightly as he came upright again. I smelled gin on his breath, and saw it in the blossoms of burst blood vessels in his nose and cheeks.

“Enchanted, I’m sure,” I said, giving him my hand to kiss. He looked at first surprised, but then bent over it with a deep flourish. I looked over his powdered head, trying to make out as much as I could in the dim light of the attic.

Betty might as well have been dead for a week, judging from the ashy cast of her skin, but such light as there was in the attic came through thick oiled paper nailed across the tiny gables. Ulysses himself looked gray, like charcoal frosted with ash.

The blood from the slave’s arm had already begun to clot; that was good—though I shuddered to think how many people Fentiman might have used his nasty little implement on since acquiring it. His case was open on the floor beside the bed, and I saw no indication that he thought of cleaning his instruments between usages.

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