The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 213

   

It was a soft spring night, the air still crisp, but smelling of fresh green things from the sprouting moor and the salt scent of the distant sea; a night to make a man yearn to run free upon the earth and feel the blood humming dark in his veins. Tired or not, the men roused to it, alive and alert.

Christie was alert; wary-eyed and watchful. Here he was, called face-to-face with Fraser and five of his closest allies—what might they intend? True, they stood in a cell with fifty men sleeping round them, and some of those would come to Christie’s aid if he called; but a man could be beaten or killed before anyone knew he was threatened.

Fraser had spoken not a word to start, but smiled and put out his hand to Tom Christie. The other man had hesitated for a moment, suspicious—but there was no choice, after all.

“Ye would have thought Mac Dubh held a bolt of lightning in his hand, the way the shock of it went through Christie.” Kenny’s own hand lay open on the table between them, the palm hard as horn with calluses. The short, thick fingers curled slowly closed, and Kenny shook his head, a broad grin creasing his face.

“I dinna ken how it was Mac Dubh found out that Christie was a Freemason, but he knew it. Ye should have seen the look on Tom’s face when he realized that Jamie Roy was one besides!

“It was Quarry did it,” Kenny explained, seeing the question still on Roger’s face. “He was a Master himself, see.”

A Master Mason, that was, and head of a small military lodge, composed of the officers of the garrison. One of their members had died recently, though, leaving them one man short of the required seven. Quarry had considered the situation, and after some cautiously exploratory conversation on the matter, invited Fraser to join them. A gentleman was a gentleman, after all, Jacobite or no.

Not precisely an orthodox situation, Roger thought, but this Quarry sounded the type to adjust regulations to suit himself. For that matter, so was Fraser.

“So Quarry made him, and he moved from Apprentice to Fellow Craft in a month’s time, and was a Master himself a month after that—and that was when he chose to tell us of it. And so we founded a new lodge that night, the seven of us—Ardsmuir Lodge Number Two.”

Roger snorted in wry amusement, seeing it.

“Aye. You six—and Christie.” Tom Christie the Protestant. And Christie, stiff-necked but honorable, sworn to the Mason’s oaths, would have had no choice, but been obliged to accept Fraser and his Catholics as brethren.

“To start with. Within three months, though, every man in the cells was made Apprentice. And there wasna so much trouble after that.”

There wouldn’t have been. Freemasons held as basic principles the notions of equality—gentleman, crofter, fisherman, laird; such distinctions were not taken account of in a lodge—and tolerance. No discussion of politics or religion among the brothers, that was the rule.

“I can’t think it did Jamie any harm to belong to the officers’ lodge, either,” Roger said.

“Oh,” said Kenny, rather vaguely. “No, I dinna suppose it did.” He pushed back his stool and made to rise; the story was done; the dark had come and it was time to light a candle. He made no move toward the clay candlestick that stood on the hearth, but Roger glanced toward the glow of the banked fire, and noticed for the first time that there was no smell of cooking food.

“It’s time I was away home for supper,” he said, rising himself. “Come with me, aye?”

Kenny brightened noticeably.

“I will, then, a Smeòraich, and thanks. Give me a moment to milk the goats, and I’ll be right along.”

WHEN I CAME BACK upstairs next morning after a delicious breakfast featuring omelettes made with minced buffalo meat, sweet onions, and mushrooms, I found Jamie awake, though not noticeably bright-eyed.

“How are you this morning?” I asked, setting down the tray I had brought him and putting a hand on his forehead. Still warm, but no longer blazing; the fever was nearly gone.

“I wish I were deid, if only so folk would stop asking how am I?” he replied grumpily. I took his mood as an indicator of returning health, and took my hand away.

“Have you used the chamberpot yet this morning?”

He raised one eyebrow, glowering.

“Have you?”

“You know, you are perfectly impossible when you don’t feel well,” I remarked, rising to peer into the crudely glazed pot for myself. Nothing.

“Does it not occur to ye, Sassenach, that perhaps it’s yourself that’s impossible when I’m ill? If ye’re not feeding me some disgusting substance made of ground beetles and hoof-shavings, you’re pokin’ my belly and making intimate inquiries into the state of my bowels. Ahh!”

I had in fact pulled down the sheet and prodded him in the lower abdomen. No distention from a swollen bladder; his exclamation appeared to be due entirely to ticklishness. I quickly palpated the liver, but found no hardness—that was a relief.

“Have you a pain in your back?”

“I’ve a marked pain in my backside,” he said, narrowing one eye at me and folding his arms protectively across his middle. “And it’s getting worse by the moment.”

“I am trying to determine whether the snake venom has affected your kidneys,” I explained patiently, deciding to overlook this last remark. “If you can’t piss—”

“I can do that fine,” he assured me, pulling the sheet up to his chest, lest I demand proof. “Now, just leave me to my breakfast, and I’ll—”

“How do you know? You haven’t—”

“I have.” Seeing my skeptical glance at the chamberpot, he glowered under his brows, and muttered something ending in “. . . window.” I swung round to the open window, shutters open and sash raised in spite of the chilly morning air.

“You did what?”

“Well,” he defended himself, “I was standing up, and I just thought I would, that’s all.”

“Why were you standing up?”

“Oh, I thought I would.” He blinked at me, innocent as a day-old child. I left the question, going on to more important matters.

“Was there blood in—”

“What have ye brought for my breakfast?” Ignoring my clinical inquiries, he rolled to one side, and lifted the napkin draped over the tray. He looked at the bowl of bread and milk thus revealed, then turned his head, giving me a look of the most profound betrayal.

Before he could start in on further grievances, I forestalled him by sitting down on the stool beside him and demanding bluntly, “What’s wrong with Tom Christie?”

He blinked, taken by surprise.

“Is something amiss wi’ the man?”

“I wouldn’t know; I haven’t seen him.”

“Well, I havena seen him in more than twenty years myself,” he said, picking up the spoon and prodding the bread and milk suspiciously. “If he’s grown a spare head in that time, it’s news to me.”

“Ho,” I said tolerantly. “You may—and I say may—possibly have fooled Roger, but I know you.”

He looked up at that, and gave me a sidelong smile.

“Oh, aye? D’ye know I dinna care much for bread and milk?”

My heart fluttered at sight of that smile, but I maintained my dignity.

“If you’re thinking of blackmailing me into bringing you a steak, you can forget it,” I advised him. “I can wait to find out about Tom Christie, if I have to.” I stood up, shaking out my skirts as though to leave, and turned toward the door.

“Make it parritch with honey, and I’ll tell ye.”

I turned round to find him grinning at me.

“Done,” I said, and came back to the stool.

He considered for a moment, but I could see that he was only deciding how and where to begin.

“Roger told me about the Masonic lodge at Ardsmuir,” I said, to help out. “Last night.”

Jamie shot me a startled look.

“And where did wee Roger Mac find that out? Did Christie tell him?”

“No, Kenny Lindsay did. But evidently Christie gave Roger a Masonic sign of some sort when he arrived. I thought Catholics weren’t allowed to be Masons, actually.”

He raised one eyebrow.

“Aye, well. The Pope wasna in Ardsmuir prison, and I was. Though I havena heard that it’s forbidden, forbye. So wee Roger’s a Freemason, too, is he?”

“Apparently. And perhaps it isn’t forbidden, now. It will be, later.” I flapped a hand, dismissing it. “There’s something else about Christie, though, isn’t there?”

He nodded, and glanced away.

“Aye, there is,” he said quietly. “D’ye recall a Sergeant Murchison, Sassenach?”

“Vividly.” I had met the Sergeant only once, more than two years previously, in Cross Creek. The name seemed familiar in some other, more recent context, though. Then I recalled where I had heard it.

“Archie Hayes mentioned him—or them. That was it; there were two of them, twins. One of them was the man who shot Archie at Culloden, wasn’t he?”

Jamie nodded. His eyes were hooded, and I could see that he was looking back into the time he had spent in Ardsmuir.

“Aye. And to shoot a lad in cold blood was nay more than one could expect from either of them. A crueler pair I hope never to meet.” The corner of his mouth turned up, but without humor. “The only thing I ken to Stephen Bonnet’s credit is that he killed one o’ yon lurdans.”

“And the other?” I asked.

“I killed the other.”

The room seemed suddenly very quiet, as though the two of us were far removed from Fraser’s Ridge, alone together, that bald statement floating in the air between us. He was looking straight at me, blue eyes guarded, waiting to see what I would say. I swallowed.

“Why?” I asked, vaguely surprised at the calmness of my own voice.

He did look away then, shaking his head.

“A hundred reasons,” he said softly, “and none.” He rubbed absently at his wrist, as though feeling the weight of iron fetters.

“I could tell ye stories of their viciousness, Sassenach, and they would be true. They preyed upon the weak, robbing and beating—and they were the sort who took delight in cruelty for its own sake. There’s no recourse against such men, not in a prison. But I dinna say so as an excuse—for there is none.”

The prisoners at Ardsmuir were used for labor, cutting peats, quarrying and hauling stone. They worked in small groups, each group guarded by an English soldier, armed with musket and club. The musket, to prevent escape—the club, to enforce orders and ensure submission.

“It was summer. Ye’ll ken the summer in the Highlands, Sassenach—the summer dim?”

I nodded. The summer dim was the light of the Highland night, late in summer. So far to the north, the sun barely set on Midsummer’s Eve; it would disappear below the horizon, but even at midnight, the sky was pale and milky white, and the air was not dark, but seemed filled with unearthly mist.

The prison governor took advantage of the light, now and then, to work the prisoners into the late hours of the evening.

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