The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 14


“Use this ointment,” I said sternly to the girl with nettle rash, “and don’t scratch.”



THE DAY HADN’T CLEARED, but the rain had ceased for the moment. Fires smoked like smudge pots, as people hastened to take advantage of the momentary cessation to feed their carefully hoarded coals, pushing damp wood into the kindling blazes in a hasty effort to dry damp clothes and blankets. The air was still restless, though, and clouds of woodsmoke billowed ghostlike through the trees.

One such plume surged across the trail before him, and Roger turned to skirt it, making his way through tussocks of wet grass that soaked his stockings, and hanging boughs of pine that left dark patches of wetness on the shoulders of his coat as he passed. He paid the damp no mind, intent on his mental list of errands for the day.

To the tinkers’ wagons first, to buy some small token as a wedding present for Brianna. What would she like? he wondered. A bit of jewelry, a ribbon? He had very little money, but felt the need to mark the occasion with a gift of some sort.

He would have liked to put his own ring on her finger when they made their vows, but she had insisted that the cabochon ruby that had belonged to her grandfather would do fine; it fit her hand perfectly, and there was no need to spend money on another ring. She was a pragmatic person, Bree was—sometimes dismayingly so, in contrast to his own romantic streak.

Something practical but ornamental, then—like a painted chamber pot? He smiled to himself at the idea, but the notion of practicality lingered, tinged with doubt.

He had a vivid memory of Mrs. Abercrombie, a staid and practical matron of Reverend Wakefield’s congregation, who had arrived at the manse in hysterics one evening in the midst of supper, saying that she had killed her husband, and whatever should she do? The Reverend had left Mrs. Abercrombie in the temporary care of his housekeeper, while he and Roger, then a teenager, had hastened to the Abercrombie residence to see what had happened.

They had found Mr. Abercrombie on the floor of his kitchen, fortunately still alive, though groggy and bleeding profusely from a minor scalp wound occasioned by his having been struck by the new electric steam iron which he had presented to his wife on the occasion of their twenty-third wedding anniversary.

“But she said the old one scorched the tea towels!” Mr. Abercrombie had repeated at plaintive intervals, as the Reverend skillfully taped up his head with Elastoplast, and Roger mopped up the kitchen.

It was the vivid memory of the gory splotches on the worn lino of the Abercrombies’ kitchen that decided him. Pragmatic Bree might be, but this was their wedding. Better, worse, death do us part. He’d go for romantic—or as romantic as could be managed on one shilling, threepence.

There was a flash of red among the spruce needles nearby, like the glimpse of a cardinal. Bigger than the average bird, though; he stopped, bending to peer through an opening in the branches.

“Duncan?” he said. “Is that you?”

Duncan Innes came out of the trees, nodding shyly. He still wore the scarlet Cameron tartan, but had left off his splendid coat, instead wrapping the end of his plaid shawllike round his shoulders in the cozy old style of the Highlands.

“A word, a Smeòraich?” he said.

“Aye, sure. I’m just off to the tinkers’—walk with me.” He turned back to the trail—now clear of smoke—and they made their way companionably across the mountain, side by side.

Roger said nothing, waiting courteously for Duncan to choose his way into the conversation. Duncan was diffident and retiring by temperament, but observant, perceptive, and stubborn in a very quiet way. If he had something to say, he’d say it—given time. At last he drew breath and started in.

“Mac Dubh did say to me as how your Da was a minister—that’s true, is it?”

“Aye,” Roger said, rather startled at the subject. “Or at least—my real father was killed, and my mother’s uncle adopted me; it was him was the minister.” Even as he spoke, Roger wondered why he should feel it necessary to explain. For most of his life, he had thought and spoken of the Reverend as his father; and surely it made no difference to Duncan.

Duncan nodded, clicking his tongue in sympathy.

“But ye will have been Presbyterian yourself, then? I did hear Mac Dubh speak of it.” Despite Duncan’s normal good manners, a brief grin showed beneath the edge of his ragged mustache.

“I expect ye did, aye,” Roger replied dryly. He’d be surprised if the whole Gathering hadn’t heard Mac Dubh speak of it.

“Well, the thing about it is, so am I,” Duncan said, sounding rather apologetic.

Roger looked at him in astonishment.

“You? I thought you were Catholic!”

Duncan made a small embarrassed noise, lifting the shoulder of his amputated arm in a shrug.

“No. My great-grandda on my mother’s side was a Covenanter—verra fierce in his beliefs, aye?” He smiled, a little shyly. “That was watered down a good bit before it came to me; my Mam was godly, but Da wasna much of a one for the kirk, nor was I. And when I met up wi’ Mac Dubh . . . well, it wasna as though he’d asked me to go to Mass with him of a Sunday, was it?”

Roger nodded, with a brief grunt of comprehension. Duncan had met with Jamie in Ardsmuir Prison, after the Rising. While most of the Jacobite troops had been Catholic, he knew there had been Protestants of different stripes among them, too—and most would likely have kept quiet about it, outnumbered by the Catholics in close quarters. And it was true enough that Jamie’s and Duncan’s later career in smuggling would have offered few occasions for religious discourse.

“Aye, so. And your wedding to Mrs. Cameron tonight . . .”

Duncan nodded, and sucked in a corner of his mouth, gnawing contemplatively at the edge of his mustache.

“That’s it. Am I bound, d’ye think, to say anything?”

“Mrs. Cameron doesn’t know? Nor Jamie?”

Duncan shook his head silently, eyes on the trampled mud of the trail.

Roger realized that it was, of course, Jamie whose opinion was important here, rather than Jocasta Cameron’s. The issue of differing religion had evidently not seemed important to Duncan—and Roger had never heard that Jocasta was in any way devout—but hearing about Jamie’s response to Roger’s Presbyterianism, Duncan had now taken alarm.

“Ye went to see the priest, Mac Dubh said.” Duncan glanced at him sidelong. “Did he—” He cleared his throat, flushing. “I mean, did he oblige ye to be . . . baptized Romish?”

An atrocious prospect to a devout Protestant, and plainly an uncomfortable one to Duncan. It was, Roger realized, an uncomfortable thought to him, too. Would he have done it, if he had to, to wed Bree? He supposed he would have, in the end, but he admitted to having felt a deep relief that the priest hadn’t insisted on any sort of formal conversion.

“Ah . . . no,” Roger said, and coughed as another fan of smoke washed suddenly over them. “No,” he repeated, wiping streaming eyes. “But they don’t baptize you, ye know, if ye’ve been christened already. You have been, aye?”

“Oh, aye.” Duncan seemed heartened by that. “Aye, when I—that is—” A faint shadow crossed his face, but whatever thought had caused it was dismissed with another shrug. “Yes.”

“Well, then. Let me think a bit, aye?”

The tinkers’ wagons were already in sight, huddled like oxen, their merchandise shrouded in canvas and blankets against the rain, but Duncan stopped, clearly wanting the matter settled before going on to anything else.

Roger rubbed a hand over the back of his neck, thinking.

“No,” he said finally. “No, I think ye needna say anything. See, it’ll not be a Mass, only the marriage service—and that’s just the same. Do ye take this woman, do ye take this man, richer, poorer, all that.”

Duncan nodded, attentive.

“I can say that, aye,” he said. “Though it did take a bit of coming to, the richer, poorer bit. Ye’ll ken that, though, yourself.”

He spoke quite without any sense of irony, merely as one stating an obvious fact, and was plainly taken aback at his glimpse of Roger’s face in response to the remark.

“I didna mean anything amiss,” Duncan said hastily. “That is, I only meant—”

Roger waved a hand, trying to brush it off.

“No harm done,” he said, his voice as dry as Duncan’s had been. “Speak the truth and shame auld Hornie, aye?”

It was the truth, too, though he had somehow managed to overlook it until this moment. In fact, he realized with a sinking sensation, his situation was a precise parallel with Duncan’s: a penniless man without property, marrying a rich—or potentially rich—woman.

He had never thought of Jamie Fraser as being rich, perhaps because of the man’s natural modesty, perhaps simply because he wasn’t—yet. The fact remained that Fraser was the proprietor of ten thousand acres of land. If a good bit of that land was still wilderness, it didn’t mean it would stay that way. There were tenants on that property now; there would be more soon. And when those tenancies began to pay rents, when there were sawmills and gristmills on the streams, when there were settlements and stores and taverns, when the handful of cows and pigs and horses had multiplied into fat herds of thriving stock under Jamie’s careful stewardship . . . Jamie Fraser might be a very rich man indeed. And Brianna was Jamie’s only natural child.

Then there was Jocasta Cameron, demonstrably already a very rich woman, who had stated her intention to make Brianna her heiress. Bree had exigently refused to countenance the notion—but Jocasta was as naturally stubborn as her niece, and had had more practice at it. Besides, no matter what Brianna said or did, folk would suppose . . .

And that was what was truly sitting in the bottom of his stomach like a curling stone. Not just the realization that he was in fact marrying well above his means and position—but the realization that everyone in the entire colony had realized it long ago, and had probably been viewing him cynically—and gossiping about him—as a rare chancer, if not an outright adventurer.

The smoke had left a bitter taste of ashes at the back of his mouth. He swallowed it down, and gave Duncan a crooked smile.

“Aye,” he said. “Well. Better or worse. I suppose they must see something in us, eh? The women?”

Duncan smiled, a little ruefully.

“Aye, something. So, ye think it will be all right, then, about the religion? I wouldna have either Miss Jo or Mac Dubh think I meant aught amiss by not speaking. But I didna like to make a fizz about it, and it’s no needed.”

“No, of course not,” Roger agreed. He took a deep breath and brushed damp hair off his face. “Nay, I think it’s all right. When I spoke to the—the Father, the only condition he made was that I should let any children be baptized as Catholics. But since that’s not a consideration for you and Mrs. Cameron, I suppose . . .” He trailed off delicately, but Duncan seemed relieved at the thought.