The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 209

   

He dressed slowly, his mind still pleasantly torpid. As he bent to dredge his stockings out from under the bed, though, something in the tumbled bedclothes caught his eye, just under the edge of the pillow. He reached out slowly and picked it up. The “auld wifie”—the tiny fertility charm, its ancient pink stone smooth in the sun, surprisingly heavy in his hand.

“I will be damned,” he said, aloud. He stood staring at it for a moment, then bent and tucked it gently back beneath the pillow.

BRIANNA HAD PUT the visitor in Jamie’s study—what most of the tenants still called the speak-a-word room. Roger stopped for a moment in the corridor, checking to be sure all his bodily parts were present and attached. There hadn’t been time to shave, but he’d combed his hair; there was a limit to what this Christie might expect, under the circumstances.

Three faces turned toward the door as he came in, surprising him. Bree hadn’t thought to warn him that Christie had outriders. Still, the elder man, a square-set gentleman with trimly cut black hair streaked with gray, was obviously Thomas Christie; the dark-haired younger man was no more than twenty, and just as obviously Christie’s son.

“Mr. Christie?” He offered the older man his hand. “I’m Roger MacKenzie; I’m married to Jamie Fraser’s daughter—you’ve met my wife, I think.”

Christie looked mildly surprised, and looked over Roger’s shoulder, as though expecting Jamie to materialize behind him. Roger cleared his throat; his voice was still thick from sleep, and thus even more hoarse than it usually was.

“I’m afraid my father-in-law is . . . not available at present. Could I be of service to you?”

Christie frowned at him, assessing his potential, then nodded slowly. He took Roger’s hand, and shook it firmly. To his astonishment, Roger felt something both familiar and grossly unexpected; the distinctive pressure against his knuckle of a Masonic greeting. He had not experienced that in years, and it was more reflex than reason that caused him to respond with what he hoped was the proper countersign. Evidently it was satisfactory; Christie’s severe expression eased slightly, and he let go.

“Perhaps ye may, Mr. MacKenzie, perhaps ye may,” Christie said. He fixed a piercing gaze on Roger. “I wish to find land on which to settle with my family—and I was told that Mr. Fraser might feel himself in a position to put something suitable in my way.”

“That might be possible,” Roger replied cautiously. What the hell? he thought. Had Christie just been trying it on at a venture, or had he reason to expect that sign would be recognized? If he did—that presumably meant that he knew Jamie Fraser would recognize it, and thought his son-in-law might, as well. Jamie Fraser, a Freemason? The thought had never so much as crossed Roger’s mind, and Jamie himself had certainly never spoken of it.

“Please—do sit down,” he said abruptly, motioning to the visitors. Christie’s family—the son and a girl who might be either Christie’s daughter or the son’s wife—had risen as well when Roger came in, standing behind the paterfamilias like attendants behind some visiting potentate.

Feeling more than slightly self-conscious, Roger waved them back to their stools, and sat down himself behind Jamie’s desk. He plucked one of the quills from the blue salt-glazed jar, hoping this would make him seem more businesslike. Christ, what questions ought he to ask a potential tenant?

“Now, then, Mr. Christie.” He smiled at them, conscious of his unshaven jaws. “My wife says that you were acquainted with my father-in-law, in Scotland?”

“In Ardsmuir prison,” Christie answered, darting Roger a sharp look, as though daring him to make something of this.

Roger cleared his throat again; healed as it was, it tended still to be clogged and rasping for some time after rising. Christie appeared to take it as an adverse comment, however, and bristled slightly. He had thick brows and prominent eyes of a light yellowish-brown color, and this, coupled with feathery, close-clipped dark hair and the lack of any visible neck, gave him the aspect of a large, irascible owl.

“Jamie Fraser was a prisoner there as well,” he said. “Surely ye knew as much?”

“Why, yes,” Roger said mildly. “I understand that several of the men who are settled here on the Ridge came from Ardsmuir.”

“Who?” Christie demanded, increasing the owlish impression.

“Ah . . . the Lindsays—that’s Kenny, Murdo, and Evan,” Roger said, rubbing a hand over his brow to assist thought. “Geordie Chisholm and Robert MacLeod. I think—yes, I’m fairly sure Alex MacNeill was from Ardsmuir, too.”

Christie had been following this list with close attention, like a barn owl keeping track of a rustling in the hay. Now he relaxed, settling his feathers, as Roger thought.

“I know them,” he said, with an air of satisfaction. “MacNeill will vouch for my character, if that’s needful.” His tone strongly suggested that it shouldn’t be.

Roger had never seen Jamie interview a potential tenant, but he had heard Fraser talk to Claire about the ones he chose. Accordingly, he posed a few questions regarding Christie’s more recent past, trying to balance courtesy with an attitude of authority, and—he thought—managing it none too badly.

Christie had been transported with the other prisoners, he said, but had been fortunate in having his indenture purchased by a plantation owner in South Carolina, who upon finding that Christie possessed some learning, had made him schoolmaster to his own six children, taking fees from the nearby families for the privilege of sending their children also to be tutored by Christie. Once Christie’s term of indenture had expired, he had agreed to remain, working for wages.

“Really?” Roger said, his interest in Christie increasing markedly. A schoolmaster, eh? It would please Bree no end, to be able to resign her involuntary position as what she disparagingly termed Bo-Peep. And Christie looked more than capable of dealing with intransigent scholars. “What brings you here, then, Mr. Christie? It’s some way from South Carolina.”

The man shrugged broad shoulders. He was road-worn and quite dusty, but his coat was of decent cloth, and he had sound shoes.

“My wife died,” he said gruffly. “Of the influenza. So did Mr. Everett, the owner. His heir did not require my services, and I did not wish to remain there without employment.” He shot Roger a piercing look under shaggy brows. “You said Mr. Fraser is not available. How long will it be until his return?”

“I couldn’t say.” Roger tapped the end of the quill against his teeth, hesitating. In fact, he couldn’t say how long Jamie might be incapacitated; when seen last night, he’d looked barely alive. Even if he recovered uneventfully, he could be ill for some time. And he hated to send Christie away, or make him wait; it was late in the year, and not much time to spare, if the man and his family were to be settled for the winter.

He glanced from Christie to his son. Both sizable men, and strong, from the looks of them. Neither had the look of a drunkard or a lout, and both had the callused palms that bespoke at least familiarity with manual labor. They had a woman to look after their domestic requirements. And after all, Masonic brotherhood quite aside, Christie had been one of Jamie’s Ardsmuir men. He knew that Jamie always made a special effort to find such men a place.

Making a decision, Roger pulled out a clean sheet of paper and uncapped the inkwell. He cleared his throat once more.

“Very well, Mr. Christie. I think we can reach some . . . accommodation.”

To his pleased surprise, the study door opened, and Brianna came in, carrying a tray of biscuits and beer. She cast down her eyes modestly as she set it on the desk, but he caught the flash of amusement she sent him under her lashes. He bent his head, smiling, and touched her wrist lightly in acknowledgment as she set out the mugs in front of him. The gesture reminded him of Christie’s handshake, and he wondered whether Brianna knew anything about Jamie’s history in that direction. He rather thought not; surely she would have mentioned it.

“Brianna, say hello to our new tenants,” he said, with a nod at the Christies. “Mr. Thomas Christie, and . . .”

“My son, Allan,” Christie said, with a jerk of the head, “and my daughter, Malva.”

The son had none of his father’s owlish look, being much fairer in aspect, with a broad, square, clean-shaven face, though he had the same feathery, tufted dark hair. He nodded in silent acknowledgment of the introduction, eyes fixed on the refreshment.

The girl—Malva?—barely looked up, her hands folded modestly in her lap. Roger had the vague impression of a tallish girl, perhaps seventeen or eighteen, neat in a dark blue dress and white kerch, with a soft frill of black curls just visible around the pale oval of her face. Another point in Christie’s favor, Roger thought absently; girls of marriageable age were rare, pretty ones still rarer. Malva Christie would likely have several offers before the spring planting.

Bree nodded to each of them, looking at the girl with particular interest. Then a loud shriek came from the kitchen, and she fled with a murmured excuse.

“My son,” Roger said, in apology. He lifted a mug of beer, offering it. “Will you take a bit of refreshment, Mr. Christie?”

The tenant contracts were all kept in the left-hand drawer of the desk; he’d seen them, and knew the general outlines. Fifty acres would be granted outright, more land rented as needed, with provision for payment made according to individual situations. A little discussion over the beer and biscuits, and they had reached what seemed an adequate agreement.

Completing the contract with a flourish, Roger signed his own name, as agent for James Fraser, and pushed the paper across the desk for Christie to sign. He felt a deep, pleasant glow of accomplishment. A sound tenant, and willing to pay half his quitrent by serving as schoolmaster for five months of the year. Jamie himself, Roger thought complacently, would not have done better.

Then he caught himself. No, Jamie would have taken one more step, and seen the Christies offered not only hospitality but lodging, a place to stay until they could achieve some shelter of their own. Not here, though; not with Jamie ill and Claire occupied in nursing him. He thought for a moment, then stepped to the door and called for Lizzie.

“We’ve a new tenant come, and his family, a muirninn,” he said, smiling at her anxious, willing mouse-face. “This is Mr. Thomas Christie, and his son and daughter. Can ye ask your Da will he take them up to Evan Lindsay’s cabin? It’s near where they’ll have their own land, and I’m thinking perhaps Evan and his wife have room for them to stay for a bit, until they can get a start on a place of their own.”

“Oh, aye, Mister Roger.” Lizzie bobbed a quick curtsy toward Christie, who acknowledged her with a small bow. Then she glanced at Roger, thin brows lifted. “Will Himself know about it, then?”

Roger felt a slight flush rise in his cheeks, but gave no sign of discomposure.

“That’s all right,” he said. “I’ll be telling him, so soon as he’s feeling better.”

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