The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 226


“Well, there you have me,” I admitted. “The principle holds, though; you haven’t any idea what may happen.”

“That’s true,” he agreed. “But whatever does happen, I shall be ready for it.” He patted the dirk that lay on the corner of his desk, and went back to making lists of farm supplies.

The weather warmed markedly as we descended from the mountains, and as we drew nearer to the coast, flocks of seagulls and crows wheeled and swarmed over the fresh-plowed fields, shrieking ecstatically in the bright spring sunshine.

The trees in the mountains were barely beginning to leaf out, but in Wilmington, flowers were already glowing in the gardens, spikes of yellow columbine and blue larkspur nodding over the tidy fences on Beaufort Street. We found lodgings in a small, clean inn a little way from the quay. It was relatively cheap and reasonably comfortable, if a trifle crowded and dark.

“Why don’t they have more windows?” Brianna grumbled, nursing a stubbed toe after stumbling over Germain in the darkness on the landing. “Somebody’s going to burn the place down, lighting candles to see where they’re going. Glass can’t be that expensive.”

“Window tax,” Roger informed her, picking Germain up and dangling him head-down over the bannister, to Germain’s intense delight.

“What? The Crown taxes windows?”

“It does. Ye’d think people would care more about that than stamps or tea, but apparently they’re used to the window tax.”

“No wonder they’re about to have a revolu— Oh, good morning, Mrs. Burns! The breakfast smells wonderful.”

The girls, the children, and I spent several days in careful shopping, while Roger and Jamie mixed business with pleasure in assorted taprooms and taverns. Most of their errands were completed, and Jamie produced a small but useful subsidiary income from card-playing and betting on horses, but all he was able to hear of Stephen Bonnet was that he had not been seen in Wilmington for some months. I was privately relieved to hear this.

It rained later in the week, hard enough to keep everyone indoors for two days. More than simple rain; it was a substantial storm, with winds high enough to bend the palmetto trees half over and plaster the muddy streets with torn leaves and fallen branches. Marsali sat up late into the night, listening to the wind, alternating between saying the rosary and playing cards with Jamie for distraction.

“Fergus did say it was a large ship he would be coming on from New Bern? The Octopus? That sounds good-sized, doesn’t it, Da?”

“Oh, aye. Though I believe the packet boats are verra safe, too. No, dinna discard that, lass—throw away the trey of spades instead.”

“How do ye know I have the trey of spades?” she demanded, frowning suspiciously at him. “And it’s no true about the packet boats. Ye ken that as well as I do; we saw the wreckage of one at the bottom of Elm Street, day before yesterday.”

“I know ye’ve got the trey of spades because I haven’t,” Jamie told her, tucking his hand of cards neatly against his chest, “and all the other spades have already turned up on the table. Besides, Fergus might come overland from New Bern; he may not be on a boat at all.”

A gust of wind struck the house, rattling the shutters.

“Another reason not to have windows,” Roger observed, looking over Marsali’s shoulder at her hand. “No, he’s right, discard the trey of spades.”

“Here, you do it. I’ve got to go and see to Joanie.” She rose suddenly, and thrusting the cards into Roger’s hand, rustled off to the small room next door that she shared with her children. I hadn’t heard Joanie cry.

There was a loud thump and scrape overhead, as a detached tree limb sailed across the roof. Everyone looked up. Below the high-pitched keen of the wind, we could hear the hollow rumble of the surf, boiling across the submerged mudflats, pounding on the shore.

“They that go down to the sea in ships,” Roger quoted softly, “that do business in great waters; these see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep. For he commandeth, and raiseth the stormy wind, which lifteth up the waves thereof.”

“Oh, you’re a big help,” Brianna said crossly. Already edgy, her temper had not been improved by the enforced seclusion. Jemmy, terrified by all the racket, had been wrapped around her like a poultice for the better part of two days; both of them were hot, damp, and exceedingly cranky.

Roger appeared not to be put off by her mood. He smiled, and bending down, peeled Jemmy away from her, with some difficulty. He put the little boy on the floor, holding him by the hands.

“They reel to and fro,” he said theatrically, pulling Jem’s hands so that he lurched, off-balance. “And stagger like a drunken man, and are at their wit’s end.”

Jemmy was giggling, and even Brianna was beginning to smile, reluctantly.

“Then they cry unto the Lord in their trouble, and he bringeth them out of their distresses—” On “bringeth,” he swung Jemmy suddenly up in the air, caught him under the arms and whirled him round, making him shriek in delight.

“He maketh the storm a calm, so that the waves thereof are still. Then are they glad because they be quiet—” He pulled Jemmy in close, and kissed him on the head, “—so he bringeth them unto their desired haven.”

Bree applauded the performance sarcastically, but smiled nonetheless. Jamie had retrieved the cards, shuffling the deck neatly back together. He stopped, looking up. Caught by his sudden stillness, I turned my head to look at him. He glanced at me and smiled.

“The wind has dropped,” he said. “Hear it? Tomorrow, we’ll go out.”

THE WEATHER HAD CLEARED by morning, and a fresh breeze came in from the sea, bearing with it a tang of the shore, smelling of sea-lavender, pines, and a strong reek of something maritime rotting in the sun. The quay still exhibited a depressing lack of masts; no large ships lay at anchor, not even a ketch or packet boat, though the water in Wilmington harbor swarmed with dinghies, rafts, canoes, and pirettas, the little four-oared boats that flitted across the water like dragonflies, droplets sparkling from their flying oars.

One of these spotted our small party standing disconsolately on the wharf, and darted toward us, its oarsmen calling out to know whether we required transport? As Roger leaned out to shout a polite refusal, the breeze off the harbor whipped away his hat, which whirled giddily out over the brownish waters and lighted on the foam, spinning like a leaf.

The craft sculled at once toward the floating hat, and one of the oarsmen speared it deftly, raising it dripping in triumph on the end of his oar. As the piretta drew up beside the quay, though, the boatman’s look of jubilation changed to one of astonishment.

“MacKenzie!” he cried. “Bugger me wi’ a silver toothpick if it isn’t!”

“Duff! Duff, me auld lad!” Roger leaned down and grabbed his hat, then reached back to give his erstwhile acquaintance a hand up. Duff, a small, grizzled Scot with a very long nose, sparse jowls, and a fine sprout of graying whiskers that made him look as though he’d been thickly dusted in icing sugar, leaped nimbly up onto the quay and proceeded to clasp Roger in a manly embrace, punctuated by fierce thumpings on the back and ejaculations of amazement, all heartily returned by Roger. The rest of us stood politely watching this reunion, while Marsali prevented Germain from jumping off the quay into the water.

“Do you know him?” I asked Brianna, who was dubiously examining her husband’s old friend.

“I think he might have been on a ship with Roger once,” she replied, renewing her grip on Jemmy, who was wildly excited by the sight of seagulls, finding these much more entertaining than Mr. Duff.

“Why, look at him!” Duff exclaimed, finally standing back and wiping a sleeve happily under his nose. “A coat like a lairdie’s and buttons to match. And the hat! Christ, lad, ye’re so slick these days as shit wouldna stick to ye, would it?”

Roger laughed, and bent to pick up his soggy hat. He slapped it against his thigh to dislodge a strand of bladder-wrack, and handed it absently to Bree, who was still viewing Mr. Duff with a rather narrow eye.

“My wife,” Roger introduced her, and waved a hand at the rest of us. “And her family. Mr. James Fraser, Mrs. Fraser . . . and my wife’s good-sister, also Mrs. MacKenzie.”

“Your servant, sir—ladies.” Duff bowed to Jamie, and put a finger to the disreputable object on his head in brief token of respect. He glanced at Brianna, and a broad grin stretched his lips.

“Oh, so ye married her. Got her out o’ the breeks, I see.” He nudged Roger familiarly in the ribs, lowering his voice to a hoarse whisper. “Did ye pay her faither for her, or did he pay you to take her?” He emitted a creaking noise, which I took to be laughter.

Jamie and Bree gave Mr. Duff identical cold looks down the bridges of their long, straight noses, but before Roger could reply, the other oarsman shouted something incomprehensible from the boat below.

“Oh, aye, aye, hold your water, man.” Mr. Duff waved a quelling hand at his partner. “That’s by way of a jest,” he explained to me confidentially. “What with us bein’ sailors, ken. ‘Hold your water,’ aye? Forbye ye don’t hold water, then ye’ll be at the bottom o’ the harbor, aye?” He quivered with merriment, making the creaking noise again.

“Most amusing,” I assured him. “Did he say something about a whale?”

“Oh, to be sure! Was that not why ye’ve come down to the shore this morning?”

Everyone looked blank.

“No,” Marsali said, too bent upon her errand to pay much attention to anything else, including whales. “Germain, come back here! No, sir, we’ve come to see if there’s any word of the Octopus. Ye’ll not have heard anything, yourself?”

Duff shook his head.

“No, Missus. But the weather’s been that treacherous off the Banks for a month past . . .” He saw Marsali’s face go pale, and hastened to add, “A good many ships will ha’ sheered off, see? Gone to another port, maybe, or lyin’ to just off the coast, in hopes of fair skies to make the run in. Ye recall, MacKenzie—we did that ourselves, when we came in wi’ the Gloriana.”

“Aye, that’s true.” Roger nodded, though his eyes grew wary at mention of the Gloriana. He glanced briefly at Brianna, then back at Duff, and lowered his voice slightly. “You’ve parted company with Captain Bonnet, I see.”

A small jolt shot through the soles of my feet, as though the dock had been electrified. Jamie and Bree both reacted, too, though in different fashion. He took an immediate step toward Duff, she took one back.

“Stephen Bonnet?” Jamie said, eyeing Duff with interest. “Ye’ll be acquainted with that gentleman, will ye?”

“I have been, sir,” Duff said, and crossed himself.

Jamie nodded slowly, seeing this.

“Aye, I see. And will ye ken somewhat about Mr. Bonnet’s present whereabouts, perhaps?”