The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 174

   

Jamie glanced at this, frowning, then broke the seal and opened the note.

Mr. James Fraser, Esq.

at Fraser’s Ridge

Royal Colony of North Carolina

My dear sir,

I have the honor to send the enclosed, with the compliments of my father, Lord John Grey. Upon my departure for London, he gave me instructions to obtain the finest instrument possible, and with knowledge of the high esteem in which he holds your friendship, I have taken pains to do so. I hope it will meet with your approval.

Your obdt. servant,

William Ransome, Lord Ellesmere,

Captain, 9th Regiment

“William Ransome?” Brianna had stood up in order to read over Jamie’s shoulder. She glanced at me, frowning. “He says his father’s Lord John—but isn’t Lord John’s son still a little boy?”

“He’s fifteen.” Jamie’s voice held an odd note, and I saw Roger glance up abruptly from the astrolabe in his hands, green eyes suddenly intent. His gaze shifted to me, with that odd look he had developed of late, of listening to something no one else could hear. I looked away.

“. . . not Grey,” Brianna was saying.

“No.” Jamie was still looking at the note in his hand, and sounded a little abstracted. He shook his head briefly, as though dispelling some thought, and returned to the matter at hand.

“No,” he repeated more firmly, laying down the note. “The lad is John’s stepson—his father was the Earl of Ellesmere; the boy’s the ninth of that title. Ransome is Ellesmere’s family name.”

I kept my eyes fixed sedulously on the table and the empty box, afraid to look up for fear that my transparent face might reveal something—if only the fact that there was something to be revealed.

William Ransome’s father had not, in fact, been the eighth Earl of Ellesmere. His father had been James Fraser, and I could feel the tension in Jamie’s leg where it touched mine beneath the table, though his face now wore an expression of mild exasperation.

“Evidently the lad’s been bought a commission,” he said, folding the letter neatly and tucking it back in the box. “So he’s gone off to London, and purchased the thing there at John’s instruction. But I suppose that to a lad of his background, ‘fine’ must necessarily mean plated wi’ gold!”

He stretched out a hand and Mr. Wainwright, who had been admiring his reflection in the polished golden surface, reluctantly surrendered the astrolabe.

Jamie examined it critically, rotating the inset silver eel with an index finger.

“Aye, well,” he said, almost reluctantly. “It is verra fine, as to the workmanship of the thing.”

“Pretty.” Mr. Bug nodded his approval, reaching for one of the hot stovies his wife was offering round. “Survey?”

“Aye, that’s right.”

“Survey?” Brianna took two of the little potato dumplings and sat down beside Roger, automatically passing him one. “It’s for surveying?”

“Among other things.” Jamie turned the astrolabe over and gently pushed the flat bar, making the notched sights revolve. “This bit—it’s used as a transit. Ye’ll ken what that is?”

Brianna nodded, looking interested.

“Sure. I know how to do different sorts of surveying, but we generally used . . .”

I saw Roger grimace as he swallowed, the roughness of the stovie catching at his throat. I lifted my hand toward the water pitcher, but he caught my eye and shook his head, almost imperceptibly. He swallowed again, more easily this time, and coughed.

“I recall ye said ye could survey.” Jamie regarded his daughter with approval. “That’s why I wanted this”—he hefted the object in his hand—“though I did have something a wee bit less gaudy in mind. Pewter would ha’ been more serviceable. Still, so long as I havena got to pay for it . . .”

“Let me see.” Brianna extended a hand and took the thing, frowning in absorption as she moved the inner dial.

“Do you know how to use an astrolabe?” I asked her dubiously.

“I do,” Jamie said, with a certain degree of smugness. “I was taught, in France.” He stood up, and jerked his chin toward the door.

“Bring it outside, lass. I’ll show ye how to tell the time.”

“. . . AYE, JUST THERE.” Jamie leaned intently over Bree’s shoulder, pointing at a spot on the outer dial. She moved the inner dial carefully to match, looked up at the sun, and twitched the pointer a fraction of an inch.

“Five-thirty!” she exclaimed, flushed with delight.

“Five thirty-five,” Jamie corrected, grinning broadly. “See there?” He pointed at one of the tiny symbols on the rim, which at this distance, appeared to be no more than a flyspeck to me.

“Five thirty-five,” Mrs. Bug said, in tones of awe. “Think of that, Arch! Why—I havena kent the time for sure, since . . . since . . .”

“Edinburgh,” her husband said, nodding.

“Aye, that’s right! My cousin Jane had a case-clock, a lovely thing, ’twould chime like a church bell, and its face wi’ brass numbers, and a pair of wee cherubs flying right across, so—”

“This is the first time I’ve known what time it was, since I left the Sherstons’ house.” Bree was ignoring both Mrs. Bug’s raptures and the instrument in her hands. I saw her meet Roger’s eyes, and smile—and after a moment, his own lopsided smile in return. How long had it been for him?

Everyone was squinting up at the setting sun, waving clouds of gnats from their eyes and discussing when they had last known the time. How very odd, I thought, with some amusement. Why this preoccupation with measuring time? And yet I had it, too.

I tried to think when the last time had been for me. At Jocasta’s wedding? No—on the field near Alamance Creek, just before the battle. Colonel Ashe had had a pocket watch, and—I stopped, remembering. No. It was after the battle. And that was very likely the last time Roger had known what time it was—if he had been sufficiently conscious to hear one of the Army surgeons announce that it was then four o’clock—and to give his considered opinion that Roger would not live to see the hour of five.

“What else can you do with it, Da?”

Bree handed the astrolabe carefully back to Jamie, who took it and at once began polishing away the fingermarks with the tail of his shirt.

“Oh, a great number of things. Ye can find your position, whether on land or at sea, tell the time, find a particular star in the sky . . .”

“Very useful,” I observed. “Though perhaps not quite so convenient as a clock. But I suppose telling time wasn’t your chief intent?”

“No.” He shook his head, stowing the astrolabe tenderly away in its velvet bag. “I must have the land of the two grants properly surveyed—and soon.”

“Why soon?” Bree had been turning to go, but turned back at this, one brow raised.

“Because time grows short.” Jamie looked up at her, the pleasure of his acquisition subsiding into seriousness. He glanced over his shoulder, but there was no one left on the porch save himself and me, Brianna and Roger.

Mr. Wainwright, uninterested in scientific marvels, had gone down to the yard and was lugging his packs into the house, aided by Mr. Bug, and hindered by Mrs. Bug’s running commentary. Everyone on the Ridge would know he was here by tomorrow, and would come to the house to buy, sell, and hear the latest news.

“Ye ken what’s coming, the two of ye.” Jamie glanced from Bree to Roger. “The King may fall, but the land will stay. And if we are to hold this land through it all, we must have it properly surveyed and registered. When there is trouble, when folk must leave their land or maybe have it seized—it’s the devil and all to get back, but it’s maybe possible, forbye—and ye have a proper deed to say what was once yours.”

The sun sparked gold and fire from the curve of his head as he looked up. He nodded toward the dark line of the mountains, silhouetted by a glorious spray of pink and gold cloud, but I could see from the look of distance in his eyes that he saw something far beyond.

“Lallybroch—we saved it by means of a deed of sasine. And Young Simon, Lovat’s son—he fought for his land, after Culloden, and got most of it back at last. But only because he had the papers to prove what had been his. So.”

He put back the lid of the box he had brought out, and laid the velvet bag gently in it. “I will have papers. And whether it is one George or the other who rules in time—this land will be ours. And yours,” he added softly, raising his eyes to Brianna’s. “And your children’s after you.”

I laid my hand on his, where it rested on the box. His skin was warm with work and the heat of the day, and he smelt of clean sweat. The hairs on his forearm shone red and gold in the sun, and I understood very well just then, why it is that men measure time. They wish to fix a moment, in the vain hope that so doing will keep it from departing.

78

NO SMALL THING

BRIANNA HAD COME UP TO the big house to borrow a book. She left Jemmy in the kitchen with Mrs. Bug, and went down the hall to her father’s study. He was gone, the room empty, though it smelled faintly of him—some indefinable masculine scent, composed of leather, sawdust, sweat, whisky, manure—and ink.

She rubbed a finger under her nose, nostrils twitching, and smiled at the thought. Roger smelled of those things, too—and yet he had his own scent, underneath. What was it? she wondered. His hands used to smell slightly of varnish and metal, when he owned a guitar. But that was long ago and far away.

Pushing away the thought, she bent her attention to the books on the shelf. Fergus had brought back three new books from his latest trip to Wilmington: a set of essays by Michel de Montaigne—those were in French, no good—a tattered copy of Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, and a very thin, paper-covered book by B. Franklin, The Means and Manner of Obtaining Virtue.

No contest, she thought, plucking out Moll Flanders. The book had seen hard use; the spine was cracked and the pages loose. She hoped they were all there; nothing worse than reaching a good part of the story and discovering that the next twenty pages were missing. She flipped carefully through, checking, but the pages seemed to be complete, if occasionally crumpled or stained with food. The book had a rather peculiar smell, as though it had been dipped in tallow.

A sudden crash from her mother’s surgery jerked her from her contemplation of the books. She looked instinctively for Jem—but of course he wasn’t there. Shoving the book hastily back into place, she rushed out of the study, only to meet her mother hurrying down the hall from the kitchen.

She beat Claire to the door of the surgery by a scant moment.

“Jem!”

The door of the big standing cupboard stood ajar, and the smell of honey was strong in the air. A broken stoneware bottle lay on the floor in a sticky golden puddle, and Jemmy sat in the middle of it, liberally smeared, his blue eyes absolutely round, mouth open in guilty shock.

Blood surged into her face. Ignoring the stickiness, she grabbed him by the arm and stood him on his feet.

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