The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 176

   

“Never thought of it when I was young. Girls mostly didn’t, then, of course. Growing up, I always assumed that I’d marry, have children, make a home . . . does Lizzie look all right to you? I thought she was looking a bit yellow round the edges last night, but it might only have been the candlelight.”

“I think she’s all right. Do you think she’s really in love with Manfred?” They had celebrated Lizzie’s betrothal to Manfred McGillivray the night before, with the entire McGillivray family traveling from their homestead for a lavish supper. Mrs. Bug, who was fond of Lizzie, had given of her best; no wonder she was asleep today.

“No,” Claire said frankly. “But as long as she isn’t in love with anyone else, it’s probably all right. He’s a good lad, and quite good-looking. And Lizzie likes his mother, which is also a good thing, under the circumstances.” She smiled at the thought of Ute McGillivray, who had taken Lizzie at once under her capacious maternal wing, picking out particularly delicious tidbits and poking them assiduously down Lizzie’s gullet, like a robin feeding a puny nestling.

“I think she may like Mrs. McGillivray more than she likes Manfred. She was really young when her own mother died; it’s nice for her to sort of have one again.” Brianna glanced at her mother from the corner of her eye. She could remember all too well the feeling of being motherless—and the sheer bliss of being mothered once more. By reflex, she glanced at Jemmy, who was holding an animated if mostly unintelligible conversation with Adso the cat.

Claire nodded, rubbing the shredded bark between her hands into a small round jar full of alcohol.

“Yes. Still, I think it’s as well they wait a bit—Lizzie and Manfred, I mean—and get used to each other.” It had been agreed that the marriage would take place the next summer, after Manfred had finished setting up his shop in Woolam’s Creek. “I hope this will work.”

“What?”

“The dogwood bark.” Claire stoppered the bottle and put it in the cupboard. “Dr. Rawlings’ casebook says it can be used as a substitute for cinchona bark—for quinine, you know. And it’s certainly easier to get, to say nothing of less expensive.”

“Great—I hope it does work.” Lizzie’s malaria had stayed in abeyance for several months—but there was always the threat of recurrence, and cinchona bark was hideously expensive.

The subject of their earlier conversation lingered in her mind, and she returned to it, as she took a fresh handful of sage leaves for her mortar, bruising them carefully before putting them to steep.

“You didn’t plan to be a doctor when you were young, you said. But you seemed pretty single-minded about it, later on.” She had scattered, but vivid, memories of Claire’s medical training; she could still smell the hospital smells caught in her mother’s hair and clothing, and feel the soft cool touch of the green scrubs her mother sometimes wore, coming in to kiss her goodnight when she came in late from work.

Claire didn’t answer at once, concentrating on the dried corn silk she was cleaning, plucking out rotted bits and flicking them through the open window.

“Well,” she said at last, not taking her eyes off her work. “People—and it’s not just women, not by any means—people who know who they are, and what they’re meant to be . . . they’ll find a way. Your father—Frank, I mean—” She scooped up the cleaned silk and transferred it to a small woven basket, small fragments scattering across the counter as she did so. “He was a very good historian. He liked the subject, and he had the gift of discipline and concentration that made him a success, but it wasn’t really a . . . a calling for him. He told me himself—he could have done other things just as well, and it wouldn’t have mattered a great deal. For some people, one thing does matter a great deal, though. And when it does . . . well, medicine mattered a great deal to me. I didn’t know, early on, but then I realized that it was simply what I was meant to do. And once I knew that . . .” She shrugged, dusting her hands, and covered the basket with a bit of linen, securing it with twine.

“Yes, but . . . you can’t always do what you’re meant to, can you?” she said, thinking of the ragged scar on Roger’s throat.

“Well, life certainly forces some things on one,” her mother murmured. She glanced up, meeting Brianna’s eyes, and her mouth quirked in a small, wry smile. “And for the common man—or woman—life as they find it is often the life they lead. Marsali, for instance. I shouldn’t think it’s ever entered her mind that she might do other than she does. Her mother kept a house and raised children; she sees no reason why she should do anything else. And yet—” Claire lifted one shoulder in a shrug, and reached across the table for the other mortar. “She had one great passion—for Fergus. And that was enough to jar her out of the rut her life would have been—”

“And into another just like it?”

Claire bent her head in a half-nod, not looking up.

“Just like it—except that she’s in America, rather than Scotland. And she’s got Fergus.”

“Like you have Jamie?” She seldom used his given name, and Claire glanced up in surprise.

“Yes,” she said. “Jamie’s part of me. So are you.” She touched Bree’s face, quick and light, then turned half away, reaching to take down a tied bundle of marjoram from the array of hanging herbs on the beam above the hearth. “But neither of you is all of me,” she said softly, back turned. “I am . . . what I am. Doctor, nurse, healer, witch—whatever folk call it, the name doesn’t matter. I was born to be that; I will be that ’til I die. If I should lose you—or Jamie—I wouldn’t be quite a whole person any longer, but I would still have that left. For a little time,” she went on, so softly that Brianna had to strain to hear her, “after I went . . . back . . . before you came . . . that was all I had. Just the knowing.”

Claire crumbled the dried marjoram into the mortar, and took up the pestle to grind it. The sound of clumping boots came from outside, and then Jamie’s voice, a friendly remark to a chicken that crossed his path.

And was loving Roger, loving Jemmy, not enough for her? Surely it should be. She had a dreadful, hollow feeling that perhaps it was not, and spoke quickly, before the thought should find words.

“What about Da?”

“What about him?”

“Does he—is he one who knows what he is, do you think?”

Claire’s hands stilled, the clanking pestle falling silent.

“Oh, yes,” she said. “He knows.”

“A laird? Is that what you’d call it?”

Her mother hesitated, thinking.

“No,” she said at last. She took up the pestle and began to grind again. The fragrance of dried marjoram filled the room like incense. “He’s a man,” she said, “and that’s no small thing to be.”

79

LONESOME ME

BRIANNA CLOSED THE BOOK, with a mingled sense of relief and foreboding. She hadn’t objected to Jamie’s notion that she teach a few of the little girls on the Ridge their ABC’s. It filled the cabin with cheerful noise for a couple of hours, and Jemmy loved the cosseting of a half-dozen miniature mothers.

Still, she was not a natural teacher, and always felt relieved at the end of a lesson. The foreboding came on its heels, though. Most of the girls came alone, or under the care of an older sister. Anne and Kate Henderson, who lived two miles away, were escorted by their older brother, Obadiah.

She wasn’t sure when or how it had started. Perhaps from the first day, when he had looked her in the eye, smiling faintly, and held the glance for a moment too long before patting his sisters’ heads and leaving them to her care. But there had been nothing she could reasonably object to. Not then, not in the days since. And yet . . .

Stated bluntly to herself, Obadiah Henderson gave her the creeps. He was a tall lad of twenty or so, heavily muscled and not bad-looking, brown-haired and blue-eyed. But there was something about him that was somehow not right; a sense of something brutal about the mouth, something feral in the deepset eyes. And something very unsettling in the way he looked at her.

She hated going to the door at the end of a lesson. The little girls would scatter in a flutter of dresses and giggles—and Obadiah would be waiting, leaning against a tree, sitting on the well-coping, once even lounging on the bench outside her door.

The constant uncertainty, never knowing where he would be—but knowing that he was there, somewhere, got on her nerves nearly as much as that half-smiling look of his, and the silent smirk as he left her, almost winking, as though he knew some dirty little secret about her, but chose to keep it to himself—for now.

It occurred to her, with a certain sense of irony, that her discomfort near Obadiah was at least partly because of Roger. She had grown accustomed to hearing things that weren’t spoken aloud.

And Obadiah didn’t speak aloud. He didn’t say anything to her, made no improper motions toward her. Could she tell him not to look at her? That was ridiculous. Ridiculous, too, that something so simple could cause her heart to jump into her throat when she opened the door, and make sweat prick beneath her arms when she saw him.

Bracing herself, she opened the door for the girls and called goodbye as they scattered, then stood and looked around. He wasn’t there. Not by the well, the tree, the bench . . . nowhere.

Anne and Kate weren’t looking; they were already halfway across the clearing with Janie Cameron, all three hand in hand.

“Annie!” she called. “Where’s your brother?”

Annie half-turned, pigtails bouncing.

“He’s gone to Salem, Miss,” she called back. “We’re going home to sup with Jane today!” Not waiting for acknowledgment, the girls all skipped away, like a trio of bouncing balls.

The tension melted slowly from her neck and shoulders as she drew a long, deep breath. She felt blank for a moment, as though she weren’t quite sure what to do. Then she drew herself up and brushed down her rumpled apron. Jemmy was asleep, lulled by the girls’ nasal singing of the alphabet song. She could take advantage of his nap to go and fetch some buttermilk from the springhouse. Roger liked buttermilk biscuits; she’d make them for supper, with a little ham.

The springhouse was cool and dark, and restful with the sound of water running through the stone-lined channel in the floor. She loved going in there, and waiting for her eyes to adjust to the darkness, so she could admire the trailing fronds of dark-green algae that clung to the stone, drifting in the current. Jamie had mentioned that a family of bats had taken up residence in the springhouse, too—yes, there they were, four tiny bundles hung up in the darkest corner, each one barely two inches long, as neat and tidy as a Greek dolmade wrapped in grape leaves. She smiled at the thought, though it was followed by a pang.

She had eaten dolmades with Roger, at a Greek restaurant in Boston. She didn’t care all that much for Greek food, but it would have been a memory of their own time to share with him, when she told him about the bats. If she told him now, she thought, he would smile in response—but the smile wouldn’t quite reach his eyes, and she would remember alone.

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