The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 217

   

To my surprise, Jamie laughed.

“I shouldna think so, Sassenach. It’s a Freemason’s compass.”

“It is?” I blinked at it, then glanced at Jamie. “Was Cameron a Mason?”

He shrugged, running a hand through his hair. Jamie never spoke of his own association with the Freemasons. He had been “made,” as the saying went, in Ardsmuir, and beyond any secrecy imposed by membership in the society, he seldom spoke of anything that had happened between those dank stone walls.

“Rawlings must have been one as well,” he said, clearly reluctant to talk about Freemasonry, but unable to keep from making logical connections. “Else he’d not have kent what that is.” One long finger tapped the sign of the compass.

I didn’t know quite what to say next, but was saved from indecision by Adso, who spit out a pair of amber wings, and sprang up onto the desk in search of more hors d’oeuvres. Jamie made a grab for the inkwell with one hand, and seized his new quill protectively in the other. Deprived of prey, Adso strolled to the edge of the desk and sat on the stack of Jamie’s letters, tail waving gently as he pretended to admire the view.

Jamie’s eyes narrowed at this insolence.

“Take your furry wee arse off of my correspondence, beast,” he said, poking at Adso with the sharp end of his quill. Adso’s big green eyes widened as they fixed on the tip of the moving feather, and his shoulder blades tensed in anticipation. Jamie twiddled the quill tantalizingly, and Adso made an abortive swipe at it with one paw.

I seized the cat hastily before mayhem could ensue, lifting him off the papers with a surprised and indignant mirp! of protest.

“No, that’s his toy,” I said to the cat, and gave Jamie a reproving look. “Come along now; there are cockroaches to attend to.”

I reached for the casebook with my free hand, but to my surprise, Jamie stopped me.

“Let me keep it a bit longer, Sassenach,” he said. “There’s something verra odd about the notion of a French Freemason wandering River Run by night. I should like to see what else Dr. Rawlings might have to say when he’s speaking Latin.”

“All right.” I hoisted Adso, who had begun to purr loudly in anticipation of cockroaches, to my shoulder, and glanced out the window. The sun had set to a burning glow beyond the chestnut trees, and I could hear the noise of women and children in the kitchen; Mrs. Bug was starting to lay the supper, helped by Brianna and Marsali.

“Dinner soon,” I said, and bent to kiss the top of Jamie’s head, where the last of the light touched his crown with fire. He smiled and touched his fingers to his lips and then to me, but he had already gone back to a perusal of the close-written pages by the time I reached the door. The single sheet with its three black words lay at the edge of the desk, forgotten—for the moment.

97

CONDITIONS OF THE BLOOD

I CAUGHT A FLASH OF BROWN outside the door, and Adso shot off the counter as though someone had shouted “Fish!” The next best thing, evidently; it was Lizzie, on her way back from the dairy shed, a bowl of clotted cream in one hand, a butter dish in the other, and a large jug of milk pressed to her bosom, precariously held in place by her crossed wrists. Adso was twining round her ankles like a furry rope, in obvious hopes of tripping her up and making her drop the booty.

“Think again, cat,” I told him, reaching to rescue the milk jug.

“Oh, thank ye, ma’am.” Lizzie relaxed, easing her shoulders with a little sigh. “It’s only as I didna want to be making two trips.” She sniffed and tried to wipe her nose with a forearm, imperiling the butter.

I snatched a handkerchief from my pocket and applied it, repressing the maternal impulse to say, “Now, blow.”

“Thank ye, ma’am,” she repeated, bobbing.

“Are you quite well, Lizzie?” Without waiting for an answer, I took her by the arm and towed her into my surgery, where the large windows gave me light enough to see by.

“I’m well enough, ma’am. Truly, I’m fine!” she protested, clutching the cream and butter to her as though for protection.

She was pale—but Lizzie was always pale, looking as though she had not a corpuscle to spare. There was an odd pallid look to her skin, though, that gave me an uneasy feeling. It had been nearly a year since her last attack of malarial fever, and she did seem generally well, but . . .

“Come here,” I said, drawing her toward a pair of high stools. “Have a seat, just for a moment.”

Clearly unwilling, but not daring to protest, she sat down, balancing the dishes on her knees. I took them from her and—after a glance at Adso’s unblinkingly predatory green gaze—put them in the cupboard for safekeeping.

Pulse normal—normal for Lizzie, that is; she tended always to be a trifle fast and shallow. Breathing . . . all right, no catch or wheezing. The lymph glands under the jaw were palpable, but that was not unusual; the malaria had left them permanently enlarged, like the curve of a quail’s egg under the tender skin. Those in the neck were enlarged now, too, though—and those I generally could not feel.

I thumbed an eyelid up, peering closely at the pale gray orb that looked anxiously back. Superficially fine, though slightly bloodshot. Again, though—there was something not quite . . . right . . . about her eyes, though I couldn’t put my finger on what that something might be. Could there possibly be a tinge of yellow to the white? I frowned, turning her head to the side with a hand under her unresisting chin.

“Hullo, there. Everything all right?” Roger paused in the doorway, a very large, very dead bird held nonchalantly in one hand.

“A turkey!” I exclaimed, summoning a warm note of admiration. I liked turkeys, all right, but Jamie and Bree had killed five of the enormous birds the week before, introducing a certain note of monotony into dinner of late. Three of the things were hanging in the smoking shed at the moment. On the other hand, wild turkeys were wily and difficult to kill, and so far as I knew, Roger had never managed to bag one before.

“Did you shoot it yourself?” I asked, coming dutifully to admire the thing. He held it by the feet, and the big cupped wings flapped halfway open, the breast-feathers catching sunlight in iridescent patterns of blackish green.

“No.” Roger’s face was flushed, from sun, excitement or both, a warm hue spreading under the tanned skin. “I ran it down,” he said proudly. “Hit it in the wing with a stone, then chased it and broke its neck.”

“Wonderful,” I said, with somewhat more genuine enthusiasm. We wouldn’t have to pick buckshot out of the flesh while cleaning it, or risk breaking a tooth in the eating.

“It’s a lovely bird, Mr. Mac.” Lizzie had slid off her stool and come to admire it, too. “Such a fat one as it is! Will I take it and clean it for ye, then?”

“What? Oh, thanks, Lizzie, no—I’ll, um, take care of it.” The color rose a little higher under his skin, and I suppressed a smile. He meant he wanted to show off his catch to Brianna, in all its glory. He shifted the bird to his left hand, and held out the right to me, wrapped in a bloodstained cloth.

“I had a bit of an accident, wrestling the bird. Do you think perhaps . . . ?”

I unwrapped the cloth, pursing my lips at what lay underneath. The turkey, fighting for its life, had ripped three jagged gashes across the back of his hand with its claws. The blood had mostly clotted, but fresh drops welled up from the deepest puncture, rolling down his finger to drip on the floor.

“Oh, just a bit,” I said, glancing up at him with eyebrows raised. “Yes, I do think perhaps. Come over here and sit down. I’ll clean it, and—Lizzie! Wait a moment!”

Lizzie, seizing the distraction as an opportunity to escape, was sidling toward the door. She stopped as though shot in the back.

“Really, ma’am, I’m quite all right,” she pleaded. “Nothing’s wrong, really there isn’t.”

In fact, I had stopped her only to remind her to retrieve the butter and cream from the cupboard. Too late for the milk; Adso stood on his hind legs, head and shoulders stuck completely into the mouth of the jug, from which came small lapping noises. The sound of it echoed the small splat of Roger’s blood dripping on the floor, though, and gave me a sudden thought.

“I’ve had an idea,” I said. “Sit down again, Lizzie—I want just a tiny bit of your blood.”

Lizzie looked like a field mouse that has suddenly looked up from its crumb to discover itself in the midst of a meeting of barn owls, but she wasn’t the sort to defy an order from anyone. Very reluctantly, she climbed back onto the stool beside Roger, who had laid his turkey on the floor beside him.

“Why do you want blood?” he asked, interested. “You can have all ye want of mine, for free.” Grinning, he lifted the injured hand.

“A generous offer,” I said, laying out a linen cloth and a handful of clean glass rectangles. “But you haven’t had malaria, have you?” I plucked Adso out of the milk jug by the scruff of the neck and dropped him on the floor, before reaching into the cupboard above.

“Not so far as I know.” Roger was watching my preparations, deeply interested.

Lizzie gave a small, forlorn sound of mirth.

“Ye’d ken it well enough if ye had, sir.”

“I suppose I would.” He gave her a look of sympathy. “Very nasty, from all I hear.”

“It is that. Your bones ache so ye think they’ve all broken inside ye, and your eyes flame like a demon’s. Then the sweat pours off your skin in rivers, and the chills come on, fit to crack your teeth with the chatterin’ . . .” She hunched into herself, shuddering at the memory. “I did think it was gone, though,” she said, glancing uneasily at the lancet I was sterilizing in the flame of my alcohol lamp.

“I hope it is,” I said, frowning at the tiny blade. I picked up a small cloth and the blue glass bottle that held my distilled alcohol, and thoroughly cleaned the tip of her middle finger. “Some people never have another attack after the first, and I do hope you’re one of them, Lizzie. But for most people, it does come back now and then. I’m trying to find out whether yours might be coming back. Ready?”

Without waiting for her nod, I jabbed the lancet swiftly through the skin, then set it down and snatched up a glass slide. I squeezed the fingertip, dotting generous blood drops on each of three slides, then wrapped the cloth round her finger and let go.

Working swiftly, I took up a clean slide and laid it over a blood-drop, then drew it quickly away, smearing the blood thinly across the original slide. Again, and a third, and I laid them down to dry.

“That’s all, then, Lizzie,” I told her with a smile. “It will take a bit of preparation before these are ready to look at. When they are, I’ll call you, shall I?”

“Oh . . . no, that’s quite all right, ma’am,” she murmured, sliding off the high stool with a fearful look at the blood-smeared slides. “I dinna need to see.” She set down the discarded cloth, brushed at her apron, and scampered out of the room—forgetting the butter and cream, after all.

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