The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 167

   

She hadn’t thought to ask the dead man’s name. Was that unfeeling? she wondered. Probably; the fact was that all her feelings had been otherwise engaged at the time—and still were. Still, she closed her eyes for a moment and said a quick prayer for the repose of the soul of her unknown sitter.

She opened her eyes to see that the light was fading. She scraped the palette and began to clean her brushes and hands, returning slowly and reluctantly to the world outside her work.

Jem would have been fed his supper and bathed already, but he refused to go to bed without being nursed and rocked to sleep. Her br**sts tingled slightly at the thought; they were pleasantly full, though they seldom became excruciatingly engorged since he had taken to eating solid food and thus decreased his voracious demands on her flesh.

She’d nurse Jem and put him down, and then go have her own belated supper in the kitchen. She had not eaten with the others, wanting to take advantage of the evening light, and her stomach was growling softly, as the lingering smells of food in the air replaced the astringent scents of turps and linseed oil.

And then . . . then she would go upstairs to Roger. Her lips tightened at the thought; she realized it, and forced her mouth to relax, blowing air out so that her lips vibrated with a flatulent noise like a motorboat.

At this unfortunate moment, Phoebe Sherston’s capped head popped through the door. She blinked slightly, but had sufficiently good manners to pretend that she hadn’t seen anything.

“Oh, my dear, there you are! Do come into the parlor for a moment, won’t you? Mr. and Mrs. Wilbur are so eager to make your acquaintance.”

“Oh—well, yes, of course,” Brianna said, with what graciousness she could summon. She gestured at her paint-stained smock. “Let me just go and change—”

Mrs. Sherston waved away the smock, obviously wanting to show off her tame artist in costume.

“No, no, don’t trouble about that. We are quite simple this evening. No one will mind.”

Brianna moved reluctantly toward the drawing room.

“All right. Only for a minute, though; I need to put Jem to bed.”

Mrs. Sherston’s rosebud mouth primmed slightly at that; she saw no reason why her slaves could not take care of the child altogether—but she had heard Brianna’s opinions on the subject before, and was wise enough not to press the issue.

Brianna’s parents were in the parlor with the Wilburs, who turned out to be a nice, elderly couple—what her mother would call a Darby and Joan. They fussed appropriately over her appearance, insisted politely on seeing the portrait, expressed profound admiration for both subject and painter—though blinking slightly at the former—and generally behaved with such kindness that she felt herself relaxing.

She was just on the verge of making her excuses, when Mr. Wilbur took advantage of a lull in the conversation to turn to her, smiling benevolently.

“I understand that congratulations upon your good fortune are in order, Mrs. MacKenzie.”

“Oh? Ah . . . thank you,” she said, uncertain what she was being congratulated for. She glanced at her mother for some clue; Claire grimaced slightly, and glanced at Jamie, who coughed.

“Governor Tryon has granted your husband five thousand acres of land, in the back-country,” he said. His voice was even, almost colorless.

“He has?” She felt momentarily bewildered. “What—why?”

There was a brief stir of embarrassment among the party, with small throat-clearings and marital glances between the Sherstons and the Wilburs.

“Compensation,” her mother said tersely, darting a marital glance of her own at Jamie.

Brianna understood then; no one would be so uncouth as to mention Roger’s accidental hanging openly, but it was much too sensational a story not to have made the rounds of Hillsborough society. She realized suddenly that Mrs. Sherston’s invitation to her parents and Roger had perhaps not been motivated purely by kindness, either. The notoriety of having the hanged man as house-guest would focus the attention of Hillsborough on the Sherstons in a most gratifying way—better, even, than having an unconventional portrait painted.

“I do hope that your husband is much improved, my dear?” Mrs. Wilbur tactfully bridged the conversational gap. “We were so sorry to hear of his injury.”

Injury. That was as circumspect a description of the situation as could well be imagined.

“Yes, he’s much better, thank you,” she said, smiling as briefly as politeness allowed before turning back to her father.

“Does Roger know about this? The land grant?”

He glanced at her, then away, clearing his throat.

“No. I thought perhaps ye might wish to tell him of it yourself.”

Her first response was gratitude; she would have something to say to Roger. It was an awkward business, talking to someone who couldn’t talk back. She stored up conversational fodder during the day; tiny thoughts or events that she could turn into stories, to tell him when she saw him. Her stock of stories ran out all too soon, though, and left her sitting by his bed, groping for inanities.

Her second response was a feeling of annoyance. Why had her father not told her privately, rather than exposing her family’s business to total strangers? Then she caught the subtle interplay of glances between her parents, and realized that her mother had just asked him that, silently—and he had replied, with the briefest flick of the eyes toward Mr. Wilbur, then toward Mrs. Sherston, before the long auburn lashes swept down to hide his gaze.

Better to speak the truth before a reputable witness, his expression said, than to let gossip spread of its own accord.

She had no great regard for her own reputation—“notorious” did not begin to encompass it—but she had grasped enough of the social realities to realize that real damage could be done to her father by scandal. If a false report were to get around, for instance, that Roger had really been a Regulation ring-leader, then Jamie’s own loyalties would be suspect.

She had begun to realize, listening to the talk in the Sherstons’ parlor over the last few weeks, that the Colony was a vast spiderweb. There were innumerable strands of commerce along which a few large spiders—and a number of smaller ones—made their delicate way, always listening for the faint hum of distress made by a fly that had blundered in, always testing for a thinning strand, a broken link.

The smaller entities glided warily along the margins of the web, with an eye out always for the movements of the bigger ones—for spiders were cannibals—and so, she thought, were ambitious men.

Her father’s position was prominent—but by no means so secure as to resist the undermining effects of gossip and suspicion. She and Roger had talked about it before, privately, speculating; the fracture-lines were already there, plain enough to someone who knew what was coming; the strains and tensions that would deepen into sudden chasm—one deep enough to sunder the colonies from England.

Let the strain grow too great, too quickly, let the strands between Fraser’s Ridge and the rest of the Colony fray too far . . . and they might snap, wrapping sticky ends in a thick cocoon round her family and leaving them suspended by a thread—alone, and prey to those who would suck their blood.

You are morbid tonight, she thought to herself, sourly amused at her mind’s choice of imagery. She supposed that painting death would do that.

Neither the Wilburs nor the Sherstons appeared to have noticed her mood; her mother had, and gave her a long, thoughtful look—but said nothing. She exchanged a few more pleasantries, then excused herself to the company.

Her mood was not lightened by the discovery that Jemmy had grown tired of waiting for her to come, and fallen asleep, tear-tracks on his cheeks. She knelt by his crib for a minute, one hand laid lightly on his back, hoping that he might sense her nearness and wake up. His small back rose and fell in the warm rhythm of utter peace, but he didn’t stir. Perspiration glimmered wetly in the creases of his neck.

The heat of the day rose upward, and the second floor of the house was always stifling by evening. The window, of course, was firmly closed, lest the dangerous night airs get in and do the baby harm. Mrs. Sherston had no children of her own, but she knew what precautions must be taken.

In the mountains, Brianna would not have hesitated to open the window. In a heavily-populated town like Hillsborough, full of strangers from the coast, and rife with stagnant horse troughs and dank wells . . .

Weighing the relative danger of malaria-bearing mosquitoes versus that of suffocation, Brianna finally settled for pulling the light quilt off her son and gently removing his gown, leaving him comfortably sprawled on the sheet in nothing but a clout, his soft skin damp and rosy in the dim light.

Sighing, she put out the candle and left, leaving the door ajar so that she could hear if he woke. It was nearly dark now; light welled up through the bannisters from the floor below, but the upstairs hall lay in deep shadow. Mrs. Sherston’s gilded tables and the portraits of Mr. Sherston’s ancestors were no more than spectral shapes in the darkness.

There was a light in Roger’s room; the door was shut, but a fan of soft candle-glow spread across the polished boards beneath it, just catching the edge of the blue hall-runner. She moved toward the door, thoughts of food subsumed in a greater hunger for touch. Her br**sts had begun to ache.

A slave was nodding in the corner, hands slack on the knitting that had fallen to her lap. She jerked, startled, as the door opened, and blinked guiltily at Brianna.

Bree looked at once toward the bed, but it was all right; she could hear the hiss and sigh of his breath. She frowned a little at the woman, but made a small gesture of dismissal. The woman clumsily gathered up her half-finished stocking and blundered out, avoiding Brianna’s eye.

Roger lay on his back, eyes closed, a sheet drawn tidily over the sharp angles of his body. He’s so thin, she thought, how did he get so thin, so fast? He could swallow no more than a few spoonsful of soup and Claire’s penicillin broth, but surely two or three days was not enough to leave his bones showing so prominently?

Then she realized that he had likely been thin already, from the stress of campaigning—both her parents were thinner than usual. The prominence of his bones had been disguised by the dreadful swelling of his features; now that that had subsided, his cheekbones were high and gaunt, the hard, graceful line of his jaw once more visible, stark above the white linen of the bandage wrapped around his lacerated throat.

She realized that she was staring at his jaw, appraising the color of the fading bruises. The yellow-green of a healing bruise was different than the delicate gray-green of new death; just as sickly, but withal, a color of life. She took a deep breath, suddenly aware that the window in this room was closed, too, and sweat was trickling down the small of her back, seeping unpleasantly into the crack of her buttocks.

The sound of the sash rising wakened him—he turned his head on the pillow, and smiled faintly when he saw her.

“How are you?” She spoke in a hushed voice, as though in a church. Her own voice always seemed too loud, talking to herself.

He lifted one shoulder in a slight shrug, but mouthed a silent “Okay.” He looked wilted and damp, the dark hair at his temples sweat-soaked.

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