The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 125

   

“Oh, that’s it,” he said, realizing.

“What’s it?”

“This.” He waved a hand round the snug sanctuary, rapidly filling with pungent steam. “I remember being in my cot, with a blanket over my head. My mother put this stuff in hot water—smelled just like this. That’s why it seemed familiar.”

“Oh.” The thought seemed to reassure her. “Did you have croup when you were little?”

“I suppose so, though I don’t remember it. Just the smell.” Steam had quite filled the little tent by now, moist and pungent. He drew a deep breath, pulling in a penetrating lungful, then patted Brianna’s leg.

“Don’t worry; this’ll do the trick,” he said.

Jemmy promptly started coughing his guts out with more seal noises, but they seemed less alarming now. Whether it was the darkness, the smell, or simply the homely racket of the renewed kitchen noises outside the tent, things seemed calmer. He heard Bree take in a deep breath, too, and let it out, and felt rather than saw the subtle shift of her body as she relaxed a little, patting Jemmy’s back.

They sat quietly for a bit, listening to Jemmy cough, wheeze, gasp, cough, and finally catch his breath, hiccupping slightly. He’d stopped whimpering, seeming soothed by the proximity of his parents.

Roger had dropped the cork to the camphor jar; he patted round on the floor until he found it, then pushed it firmly back in.

“I wonder what your mother’s done with her rings?” he said, looking for some easy subject of conversation to break the steam-filled silence.

“Why should she have done anything with them?” Brianna brushed back a lock of hair; she’d had it put up for the evening, but it was slipping out of its pins, clinging damply to her face.

“She wasn’t wearing them when she gave me the stuff.” He nodded at the camphor jar, set out of harm’s way near the wall. He had a clear memory of her hands, the fingers long, white, and bare; they’d struck him, since he’d never seen her hands without the gold and silver rings.

“Are you sure? She never takes them off, except to do something really nasty.” She giggled, a nervous, unexpected sound. “The last time I remember was when Jem dropped his bawbee in the chamber pot.”

Roger gave a brief snort of amusement. A bawbee was any sort of small object, but that’s what they’d taken to calling the iron ring—originally meant for leading cattle by the nose—that Jem liked to chew on. It was his favorite toy, and he didn’t like to go to bed without it.

“Ba-ba?” Jem raised his head, eyes half-closed. He was still breathing thickly, but beginning to display an interest in something besides his own discomfort. “Ba-ba!”

“Oops, shouldn’t have mentioned it.” Bree joggled him gently on her knee, and began to sing softly, half under her breath, to distract him.

“In a can-yon, in a cav-ern, exca-va-ting for a mine . . . Dwelt a min-er, forty-nin-er, and his daugh-ter, Clementine . . .”

The dark privacy of the tent reminded Roger of something; he realized that it had something of the same feeling of peaceful enclosure that the bench beneath the willows had had, though the tent was a lot hotter. The linen of his shirt was already limp on his shoulders, and he could feel sweat trickling down his back from under the hair tied at his neck.

“Hey.” He nudged Bree’s leg. “D’ye maybe want to go up and take off your new dress? It’ll be spoilt if ye stay in here for long.”

“Oh. Well . . .” She hesitated, biting her lip. “No, I’ll stay, it’s okay.”

He got up, stooping under the quilts, and gathered Jem up off her lap, hacking and gurgling.

“Go,” he said firmly. “You can fetch his b—his you-know-what. And don’t worry. Ye can tell it’s helping, the steam. He’ll be right in no time.”

It took a bit more argument, but at last she consented, and Roger sat down on the vacated stool, Jemmy cuddled in the crook of his arm. The pressure of the wooden seat reminded him of a certain amount of residual congestion from the encounter under the willows, and he shifted slightly to ease the discomfort.

“Well, it doesn’t do ye any lasting harm,” he muttered to Jemmy. “Ask any girl; they’ll tell ye.”

Jemmy snorted, snuffled, said something unintelligible beginning with “Ba—?” and coughed again, but only briefly. Roger put the back of his hand against the soft round cheek. He thought it was cooler. Hard to tell, warm as it was in here. The sweat was running freely down his face, and he wiped it with a sleeve.

“Ba-ba?” asked a froggy little voice against his chest.

“Aye, in a bit. Hush, now.”

“Ba-ba. Ba-ba!”

“Shhhh.”

“Ba—”

“Light she was, and like a fairy—” He groped for the words to the song.

“BA—”

“AND HER SHOES WERE NUMBER NINE!” Roger abruptly raised the volume, causing startled silence both inside the tent and outside, in the kitchen. He cleared his throat and lowered his voice back to lullaby level.

“Erm . . . Herring boxes without topses . . . Sandals were for Clementine. Oh, my darling, oh, my darling, oh, my darling Clementine . . . Thou art lost, and gone for-ev-er, oh, my dar-ling . . . Clementine.”

The singing seemed to be having an effect. Jemmy’s eyelids had dropped to half-mast. He put a thumb in his mouth and began to suck, but plainly couldn’t breathe through his clogged nose. Roger gently pulled the thumb away, and held the little fist enclosed in his own. It was wet and sticky, and very small, but felt reassuringly sturdy.

“Fed she duck-lings, by the water, every mor-ning just at nine . . . Hit her foot a-gainst a splin-ter, fell into the foaming brine.”

The eyelids fluttered briefly, then gave up the struggle and closed. Jemmy sighed and went completely limp, the heat coming off his skin in waves. Tiny beads of moisture trembled on each lash—tears, sweat, steam, or all three.

“Ruby lips a-bove the wa-ter, blowing bub-bles soft and fine . . . Alas for me, I was no swim-mer, so I lost my Clementine. Oh, my darling, oh, my darling . . .”

He wiped his face again, bent and kissed the soft thatch of damp, silky hair. Thank you, he thought with heartfelt sincerity, addressing everyone from God on down the line.

“. . . Oh, my darling . . . Clementine.”

48

STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT

IT WAS VERY LATE by the time I made my way to bed after a last check on the welfare of all my patients. DeWayne Buchanan had suffered a slight flesh wound in the upper arm when Ronnie Campbell neglected to raise his pistol high enough while carousing on the riverbank, but was in good spirits after having the wound cleaned and dressed. Having been liberally plied with further spirits by a remorseful Ronnie, he was quite literally feeling no pain at present.

One of Farquard Campbell’s slaves, a man named Rastus, had been badly burned on the hand when taking grilled fowl off a skewer; all I could do there was to wrap the hand in clean cloth, set it in a bowl of cold water, and prescribe gin, to be taken internally. I had also treated several young men who were considerably the worse for drink, and sporting miscellaneous contusions, abrasions, and missing teeth as the result of a disagreement over dice. Six cases of indigestion, all treated with peppermint tea, and reporting improvement. Betty was in what looked like a deep but natural sleep, snoring loudly in bed. Jemmy was doing likewise, his fever abated.

Most of the loud revelry had died down by now; only the most die-hard of the card players were still at it, peering red-eyed at their pasteboards through a cloud of tobacco smoke in the small drawing room. I glanced into the other rooms as well, as I made my way across the ground floor to the front stair. A few gentlemen lingered in low-voiced political conversation at one end of the dining room, the table long since cleared and empty brandy glasses forgotten by their elbows. Jamie wasn’t one of them.

A heavy-eyed slave in livery bowed as I poked my head in, murmuring to ask whether I wanted food or drink. I hadn’t eaten anything since supper, but I waved him away, too tired to think of food.

I paused at the first landing and glanced down the hall toward Jocasta’s suite of rooms, but all was quiet there, the charivari and horseplay over. There was a large dent in the linenfold paneling, where a heavy body had struck, and glancing up, I could see several burned spots in the ceiling, where shots had been fired into it.

The butler Ulysses sat guard on a stool by the door, still dressed in wig and formal livery, head nodding over folded arms. A candle guttered and spat in the sconce above him. By its wavering light, I could see that his eyes were closed, but he wore a deep frown; he hunched in his sleep, and his lips moved briefly, as though he dreamed of evil things. I thought to waken him, but even as I moved toward him, the dream passed. He stretched, half-rousing, then fell asleep again, his face relaxing into calm. An instant later, the candle flickered out.

I listened, but heard no sound in the darkness save Ulysses’s heavy breathing. Whether Duncan and Jocasta murmured understandings to each other behind the curtains of their bed, or lay silent, side by side and eternally separate, no one would ever know. I sent them a mental wish for happiness, and dragged myself upward, knees and back aching, wishing for my own bed—and my own husband’s understanding.

Through an open casement on the second-floor landing, I heard distant whoops, laughter, and the occasional crack of recreational gunfire, borne on the night air. The younger, wilder gentlemen—and a few old enough to know better—had gone down to the river landing in company with a dozen bottles of whisky and brandy to shoot frogs, or so I was informed.

The ladies, though, were all asleep. The second floor was quiet save for the buzz of muffled snoring. By contrast to the chilly corridor outside, the chamber itself was stifling, though the fire had burned down to a crimson coal bed that shed no more than an eerie red glow across the hearth.

With so many guests in the house, the only people with the luxury of a private bedroom were the bridal pair; everyone else was crammed into the few available rooms, willy-nilly. Two large tester beds and a trundle occupied the room, with straw-tick pallets spread over most of the remaining floor space. Each bed was packed like a sardine tin with shift-clad women lying side by side across the mattress, radiating as much moist heat as a greenhouse full of orchids.

I breathed shallowly—the air was filled with a cloying mixture of stale sweat, barbecue, and fried onions, French perfume, drink-sodden breath, and the sharp, sweet smell of vanilla beans—and shed my gown and shoes as quickly as I could, hoping not to break out into a drenching sweat before I could undress. I was still keyed up from the events of the day, but exhaustion was pulling like lead weights at my limbs, and I was glad enough to tiptoe through the sprawl of bodies and creep into my accustomed space near the foot of one of the big beds.

My mind was still buzzing with speculations of all sorts, and in spite of the hypnotic lull of so much slumber all around me, I lay stiff-limbed and sore, watching the silhouette of my bare toes against the hearth’s dying light.

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