The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 173

   

“It’s not likely,” I said, answering his thought, rather than his words. “Bree will stay, certainly until Jemmy’s grown; perhaps for good.” After all, how could one abandon a child, the possibility of grandchildren? And yet, I had done it. I rubbed a finger absently over the smooth metal of my gold ring.

“Aye. But the lad?” He looked up at me, one eyebrow raised, the candlelight clear in his eyes, blue as sapphires cut and polished.

“He wouldn’t,” I said. “He wouldn’t leave Bree and Jemmy.” I spoke stoutly, but there was a thread of doubt in my heart, and it was reflected in my voice.

“Not yet,” Jamie said quietly.

I took a deep breath, but did not reply. I knew very well what he meant. Wrapped in silence, Roger seemed to withdraw further day by day.

His fingers had healed; I had suggested to Brianna that perhaps he would find solace in his bodhran. She had nodded, doubtfully. I didn’t know whether she had mentioned it to him or not—but the bodhran hung on the wall of their cabin, silent as its owner.

He did still smile and play with Jemmy, and was unfailingly attentive to Brianna—but the shadow in his eyes never lessened, and when he was not required for some chore, he would disappear for hours, sometimes all day, to walk the mountains, returning after dark, exhausted, dirt-stained—and silent.

“He hasna slept with her, has he? Since it happened?”

I sighed, brushing a strand of hair off my forehead.

“A few times. I asked. My guess would be that it hasn’t happened lately, though.”

Bree was doing her best to keep him close, to draw him out of the depths of his gathering depression—but it was clear to me, as well as to Jamie, that she was losing the battle, and knew it. She too was growing silent, and had shadows in her eyes.

“If he went . . . back . . . might there be a cure for his voice? There in your own time?” Jamie ran a finger over the opal as he spoke, eyes following the spiral as his finger traced it.

I sighed again, and sat down.

“I don’t know. There would be help—perhaps surgery, certainly speech therapy. I can’t say how much it would help; no one can. The thing is . . . he might recover a good deal of his voice naturally, if he’d only work at it. But he isn’t going to do that. And of course,” honesty compelled me to add, “he might not get it back, no matter how hard he worked.”

Jamie nodded, silent. Regardless of the possibilities of medical help, the fact was that if the marriage between Roger and Brianna failed, there was nothing whatever to keep him here. Whether he would choose to go back then . . .

Jamie sat up in his chair, and blew the candle out.

“Not yet,” he said in the darkness, his voice firm. “We’ve a few weeks yet before I must send money to Scotland; I’ll see what else we might contrive. For now, we’ll keep the stones.”

Last night I dreamed that I was making bread. Or at least I was trying to make bread. I’d be mixing dough and suddenly realize that I didn’t have any flour. Then I’d put the bread in pans and put it in the oven and realize that it hadn’t risen, and take it back out. I’d knead it and knead it and then I’d be carrying it around in a bowl under a cloth, looking for a warm place to put it, because you have to keep it warm or the yeast dies, and I was getting frantic because I couldn’t find a warm place; there was a cold wind blowing and the bowl was heavy and slippery and I thought I was going to drop it; my hands and feet were freezing and going numb.

Then I woke up and I really was cold. Roger had pulled all the covers off and rolled himself up in them, and there was a terrible draft blowing in under the door. I nudged him and yanked on the blankets, but I couldn’t get them loose and I didn’t want to make a lot of noise and wake Jemmy up. Finally, I got up and got my cloak off the peg and went back to sleep under that.

Roger got up before me this morning and went out; I don’t think he noticed that he’d left me in the cold.

77

A PACKAGE FROM LONDON

THE PACKAGE ARRIVED in August, by the good offices of Jethro Wainwright, one of the few itinerant peddlers with sufficient enterprise to ascend the steep and winding paths that led to the Ridge. Red-faced and wheezing from the climb and the work of unloading his donkey’s pack-frame, Mr. Wainwright handed me the package with a nod, and staggered gratefully off toward the kitchen at my invitation, leaving his donkey to crop grass in the yard.

It was a small parcel, a box of some sort, sewn up carefully in oilskin and tied with twine for good measure. It was heavy. I shook it, but the only sound was a soft clunking, as though whatever lay within was padded. The label read simply “To Mr. James Fraser, Esq., Fraser’s Ridge, the Carolinas.”

“Well, what do you suppose this is?” I asked the donkey. It was a rhetorical question, but the donkey, an amiable creature, looked up from her meal and hee-hawed in reply, stems of fescue hanging from the corner of her

mouth.

The sound set off answering cries of curiosity and welcome from Clarence and the horses, and within seconds, Jamie and Roger appeared from the direction of the barn, Brianna came out of the springhouse, and Mr. Bug rose up from behind the manure pile in his shirtsleeves like a vulture rising from a carcass, all drawn by the noise.

“Thanks,” I said to the donkey, who flicked a modest ear at me and went back to the grass.

“What is it?” Brianna stood on her toes to peer over Jamie’s shoulder as he took the package from me. “It’s not from Lallybroch, is it?”

“No, it’s neither Ian’s hand . . . nor my sister’s,” Jamie replied with no more than a brief hesitation, though I saw him glance twice to make sure. “It’s come a good way, though—by ship?” He held the parcel under my nose inquiringly. I sniffed and nodded.

“Yes; there’s a whiff of tar about it. No documents, though?”

He turned the package over, then shook his head.

“It had a seal, but that’s gone.” Grayish fragments of wax clung to the twine, but the seal that might have provided a clue to the sender had long since succumbed to the vicissitudes of travel and Mr. Wainwright’s pack.

“Ump.” Mr. Bug shook his head, squinting dubiously at the package. “Not a mattock.”

“No, it’s nay a mattock-head,” Jamie agreed, hefting the little parcel appraisingly. “Nor yet a book, let alone a quire of paper. I havena ordered anything else that I can think of. D’ye think it might be seeds, Sassenach? Mr. Stanhope did promise to send ye bits from his friend’s garden, aye?”

“Oh, it might be!” That was an exciting possibility; Mr. Stanhope’s friend Mr. Crossley had an extensive ornamental garden, with a large number of exotic and imported species, and Stanhope had offered to see whether Crossley might be amenable to an exchange; seeds and cuttings of some of the rarer European and Asian herbs from his collection, for bulbs and seeds from what Stanhope described as my “mountain fastness.”

Roger and Brianna exchanged a brief look. Seeds were a good deal less intriguing to them than either paper or books would be. Still, the novelty of any letter or package was sufficient that no one suggested opening it until the full measure of enjoyment should have been extracted from speculation about its contents.

In the event, the package was not opened until after supper, when everyone had had a chance to weigh the parcel, poke and sniff at it, and offer an opinion regarding its contents. Pushing his empty plate aside, Jamie finally took up the parcel with all due ceremony, shook it once more, and then handed it to me.

“That knot’s a job for a surgeon’s hands, Sassenach,” he said with a grin. It was; whoever had tied it was no sailor, but had substituted thoroughness for knowledge. It took me several minutes of picking, but I got the knot undone at last, and rolled the twine up tidily for future use.

Jamie then slit the stitching carefully with the point of his dirk, and drew out a small wooden box, to gasps of astonishment. It was plain in design, but elegant in execution, made of a polished dark wood, equipped with brass hinges and hasp, and with a matching small brass plate set into the lid.

“From the Workshop of Messrs. Halliburton and Halliburton, 14 Portman Square, London.” Brianna read it out, leaning across the table and craning her neck. “Who on earth are Norman and Greene?”

“I havena the slightest idea,” Jamie replied. He lifted the hasp with one finger, and delicately put back the lid. Inside was a small bag of dark red velvet. He pulled this out, opened its drawstring, and slowly drew out a . . . thing.

It was a flat golden disk, about four inches across. Goggling in astonishment, I could see that the rim was slightly raised, like that of a plate, and printed with tiny symbols of some kind. Set into the central part of the disk was an odd pierced-work arrangement, made of some silvery metal. This consisted of a small open dial, rather like a clock-face, but with three arms connecting its outer rim to the center of the bigger, golden disk.

The small silver circle was also adorned with printed arcana, almost too fine to see, and attached to a lyre-shape which itself rested in the belly of a long, flat silver eel, whose back curved snugly round the inner rim of the golden disk. Surmounting the whole was a gold bar, tapered at the ends like a very thick compass needle, and affixed with a pin that passed through the center of the disk and allowed the bar to revolve. Engraved in flowing script down the center of the bar was the name “James Fraser.”

“Why, whatever in the name of Bride will that be?” Mrs. Bug, naturally, recovered first from her surprise.

“It’s a planispheric astrolabe,” Jamie answered, recovered from his surprise, and sounding now almost matter-of-fact.

“Oh, of course,” I murmured. “Naturally!”

He turned the thing over, displaying a flat surface etched with several concentric circles, these in turn subdivided by hundreds of tiny markings and symbols. This side had a revolving bit like the compass-needle thing on the other side, but rectangular in shape, and with the ends bent upward, flattened and notched so that the notches formed a pair of sights.

Bree reached out a finger and touched the gleaming surface reverently.

“My God,” she said. “Is that really gold?”

“It is.” Jamie placed the object gingerly into her outstretched palm. “And what I should like to know is why?”

“Why gold, or why an astrolabe?” I asked.

“Why gold,” he replied, frowning at the thing. “I’d been wanting such an instrument for some time, and couldna find one anywhere between Albany and Charleston. Lord John Grey had promised to have one sent me from London, and I suppose this is it. But why in Christ’s name . . .”

Everyone’s attention was still riveted by the astrolabe itself, but Jamie glanced away, reaching instead for the box it had come in. Sure enough, at the bottom of the box lay a note, crisply folded and sealed with blue wax. The insignia, though, was not Lord John’s customary smiling half-moon-and-stars, but an unfamiliar crest, showing a fish with a ring in its mouth.

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