The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 22

   

The thought of weddings reminded him, finally, that there was in fact another coming. He glanced down at himself, and saw that Bree hadn’t been exaggerating about his appearance. Damn, and it was Jamie’s coat, too.

He began to brush off the pine needles and streaks of mud, but was interrupted by a halloo from the path above. He looked up, to see Duncan Innes making his way carefully down the steep slope, body canted to compensate for his missing arm. Duncan had put on his splendid coat, scarlet with blue facings and gold buttons, and his hair was plaited tight under a stylish new black hat. The transformation from Highland fisherman to prosperous landowner was startling; even Duncan’s attitude seemed changed, more confident by half.

Duncan was accompanied by a tall, thin, elderly gentleman, very neat but threadbare in appearance, his scanty white locks tied back from a high and balding brow. His mouth had collapsed from lack of teeth, but retained its humorous curve, and his eyes were blue and bright, set in a long face whose skin was stretched so tight across the bone as scarce to leave enough to wrinkle round the eyes, though deep lines carved the mouth and brow. With a long-beaked nose, and clad in rusty, tattered black, he looked like a genial vulture.

“A Smeòraich,” Duncan hailed Roger, looking pleased. “The very man I hoped to find! And I trust you’re weel-fettled against your marriage?” he added, his eyes falling quizzically on Roger’s stained coat and leaf-strewn hair.

“Oh, aye.” Roger cleared his throat, converting his coat-brushing to a brief thump of his chest, as though to loosen phlegm. “Damp weather for a wedding, though, eh?”

“Happy the corpse the rain falls on,” Duncan agreed, and laughed, a little nervously. “Still, we’ll hope not to die o’ the pleurisy before we’re wed, eh, lad?” He settled the fine crimson coat more snugly on his shoulders, flicking an imaginary speck of dust from the cuff.

“You’re very fine, Duncan,” Roger said, hoping to distract attention from his own disreputable state with a bit of raillery. “Quite like a bridegroom!”

Duncan flushed a little behind his drooping mustache, and his one hand twiddled with the crested buttons on his coat.

“Ah, well,” he said, seeming mildly embarrassed. “Miss Jo did say as she didna wish to stand up wi’ a scarecrow.” He coughed, and turned abruptly to his companion, as though the word had suddenly reminded him of the man’s presence.

“Mr. Bug, here’s Himself’s good-son, Roger Mac, him I tellt ye of.” He turned back toward Roger, waving vaguely at his companion, who stepped forward, extending his hand with a stiff but cordial bow. “This will be Arch Bug, a Smeòraich.”

“Your servant, Mr. Bug,” Roger said politely, slightly startled to observe that the large bony hand gripping his was missing its first two fingers.

“Ump,” Mr. Bug replied, his manner indicating that he reciprocated the sentiment sincerely. He might have intended to expand on the subject, but when he opened his mouth, a high-pitched feminine voice, a little cracked with age, seemed to emerge from it.

“It’s that kind, sir, of Mr. Fraser, and I’m sure as he’ll have nay reason to regret it, indeed he’ll not, as I said to him myself. I canna tell ye what a blessing it is, and us not sure where our next bite was comin’ from or how to keep a roof above our heads! I said to Arch, I said, now we must just trust in Christ and Our Lady, and if we mun starve, we shall do it in a state of grace, and Arch, he says to me . . .”

A small, round woman, threadbare and elderly as her husband, but likewise neatly mended, emerged into view, still talking. Short as she was, Roger hadn’t seen her, hidden behind the voluminous skirts of her husband’s ancient coat.

“Mistress Bug,” Duncan whispered to him, unnecessarily.

“. . . and no but a silver ha’penny to bless ourselves with, and me a-wondering whatever was to become of us, and then that Sally McBride was sayin’ as how she’d heard that Jamie Fraser had need of a good—”

Mr. Bug smiled above his wife’s head. She halted in mid-sentence, eyes widening in shock at the state of Roger’s coat.

“Why, look at that! Whatever have ye been up to, lad? Have ye had an accident? It looks as though someone’s knocked ye down and dragged ye by your heels through the dung heap!”

Not waiting for answers, she whipped a clean kerchief from the bulging pocket tied at her waist, spat liberally on it, and began industriously cleaning the muddy smears from the breast of his coat.

“Oh, you needn’t . . . I mean . . . er . . . thanks.” Roger felt as though he’d been caught in some kind of machinery. He glanced at Duncan, hoping for rescue.

“Jamie Roy’s asked Mr. Bug to come and be factor at the Ridge.” Duncan seized the momentary lull afforded by Mrs. Bug’s preoccupation to give a word of explanation.

“Factor?” Roger felt a small jolt at the word, as though someone had punched him just beneath the breastbone.

“Aye, for times when Himself must be abroad or occupied with other business. For it’s true enough—fields and tenants dinna tend themselves.”

Duncan spoke with a certain note of ruefulness; once a simple fisherman from Coigach, he frequently found the responsibilities of running a large plantation onerous, and he glanced now at Mr. Bug with a small gleam of covetousness, as though he thought momentarily of tucking this useful person into his pocket and taking him home to River Run. Of course, Roger reflected, that would have meant taking Mrs. Bug, too.

“And just the thing it is, too, such good fortune, and me telling Arch just yesterday that the best we might hope for was to find work in Edenton or Cross Creek, with Arch maybe takin’ to the boats, but that’s such a perilous living, is it no? Wet to the skin half the time and deadly agues risin’ up from the swamps like ghoulies and the air sae thick wi’ the miasma as it’s not fit to breathe, and me perhaps to be takin’ in laundry in the toon whilst he was gone abroad on the water, though I’m sure I should hate that, for we havena been apart one night since we married, have we, my dearie?”

She cast a glance of devotion upward at her tall husband, who smiled gently down at her. Perhaps Mr. Bug was deaf, Roger thought. Or perhaps they had only been married a week?

Without his needing to inquire, though, he was informed that the Bugs had been husband and wife for more than forty years. Arch Bug had been a minor tacksman to Malcolm Grant of Glenmoriston, but the years after the Rising had been hard. The estate he had held for Grant having been confiscated by the English Crown, Bug had made do for some years as a crofter, but then had been obliged by hardship and starvation to take his wife and their little remaining money and seek a new life in America.

“We had thought to try in Edinburgh—” the old gentleman said, his speech slow and courtly, with a soft Highland lilt. So he wasn’t deaf, Roger thought. Yet.

“—for I had a cousin there as was to do wi’ one of the banking houses, and we thought that perhaps it would be that he could speak a word in someone’s ear—”

“But I was far too ancient and lacked sufficient skill—”

“—and lucky they would have been to have him, too! But nay, such fools as they were, they wouldna think of it, and so we had to come awa and try if we might . . .”

Duncan met Roger’s eye and hid a smile beneath his drooping mustache as the tale of the Bugs’ adventures poured out in this syncopated fashion. Roger returned the smile, trying privately to dismiss a niggling sense of discomfort.

Factor. Someone to oversee matters on the Ridge, to mind the planting, tend the harvest, deal with the concerns of tenants when Jamie Fraser was away or busy. An obvious necessity, with the recent influx of new tenants and the knowledge of what the next few years would bring.

It wasn’t until this moment, though, that Roger realized that he had subconsciously assumed that he would be Jamie’s right hand in such affairs. Or the left, at least.

Fergus assisted Jamie to some extent, riding on errands and fetching back information. Fergus’s lack of a hand limited what he could do physically, though, and he couldn’t be dealing with the paperwork or accounts; Jenny Murray had taught the French orphan her brother had adopted to read—after a fashion—but had failed utterly to give him a grasp of numbers.

Roger stole a glance at Mr. Bug’s hand, resting now in affection on his wife’s plump shoulder. It was broad, work-worn, and strong-looking despite the mutilation, but the remaining fingers were badly twisted with arthritis, the joints knobby and painful in appearance.

So Jamie thought that even an elderly, half-crippled man would be better equipped than Roger to handle the affairs of Fraser’s Ridge? That was an unexpectedly bitter thought.

He knew his father-in-law had doubts of his ability, beyond any father’s natural mistrust of the man bedding his daughter. Totally tone-deaf himself, Jamie would naturally not value Roger’s musical gift. And while Roger was decently sized and hardworking, it was unfortunately true that he had little practical knowledge of animal husbandry, hunting, or the use of deadly weapons. And granted, he had no great experience in farming or in running a large estate—which Mr. Bug plainly did. Roger would be the first to admit these things.

But he was Jamie’s son-in-law, or about to be. Damn it, Duncan had just introduced him that way! He might have been raised in another time—but he was a Highland Scot, for all that, and he was well aware that blood and kinship counted for more than anything.

The husband of an only daughter would normally be considered as the son of the house, coming only second to the head of the household in authority and respect. Unless there was something drastically wrong with him. If he were commonly known to be a drunkard, for instance—or criminally dissolute. Or feeble-minded . . . Christ, was that what Jamie thought of him? A hopeless numpty?

“Sit ye doon, young man, and I’ll attend to this fine boorachie,” Mrs. Bug interrupted these dark musings. She pulled on his sleeve, making clicking noises of disapproval as she viewed the leaves and twigs in his hair.

“Look at ye, all gluthered and blashed about! Fightin’, was it? Och, weel, I hope the other fellow looks worse, that’s all I can say.”

Before he could protest, she had him seated on a rock, had whipped a wooden comb from her pocket and the thong from his hair, and was dealing with his disordered locks in a brisk manner that felt calculated to rip several strands from his scalp.

“Thrush, is it, they call ye?” Mrs. Bug paused in her tonsorial activity, holding up a strand of glossy black and squinting suspiciously at it, as though in search of vermin.

“Oh, aye, but it’s no for the color of his bonnie black locks,” Duncan put in, grinning at Roger’s obvious discomfiture. “It’s for the singin’. Honey-throated as a wee nightingale, is Roger Mac.”

“Singing?” cried Mrs. Bug. She dropped the lock of hair, enchanted. “Was it you we heard last night, then? Singin’ ‘Ceann-ràra,’ and ‘Loch Ruadhainn’? And playin’ on the bodhran with it?”

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