The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 242


“I know that.” To my surprise, a single tear slid down my cheek and dropped on the page, puckering the paper. I blinked hard, struggling for control. I didn’t want to distress Brianna.

She wasn’t distressed. Her hands left my shoulders, and I heard the scraping of stool legs. Then her arms came around me, and I let her draw me back, my head resting just under her chin. She simply held me, letting the rise and fall of her breathing calm me.

“I went to dinner with Uncle Joe once, just after he’d lost a patient,” she said finally. “He told me about it.”

“Did he?” I was a little surprised; I wouldn’t have thought Joe would talk about such things with her.

“He didn’t mean to. I could see something was bothering him, though, so I asked. And—he needed to talk, and I was there. Afterward, he said it was almost like having you there. I didn’t know he called you Lady Jane.”

“Yes,” I said. “Because of the way I talk, he said.” I felt a breath of laughter against my ear, and smiled slightly in response. I closed my eyes, and could see my friend, gesturing in passionate conversation, face alight with the desire to tease.

“He said—that when something like that happened, sometimes there would be a sort of formal inquiry, at the hospital. Not like a trial, not that—but a gathering of the other doctors, to hear exactly what happened, what went wrong. He said it was sort of like confession, to tell it to other doctors, who could understand—and it helped.”

“Mm-hm.” She was swaying slightly, rocking me as she moved, as she rocked Jemmy, soothing.

“Is that what’s bothering you?” she asked quietly. “Not just Rosamund—but that you’re alone? You don’t have anybody who can really understand?”

Her arms wrapped around my shoulders, her hands crossed, resting lightly on my chest. Young, broad, capable hands, the skin fresh and fair, smelling of fresh-baked bread and strawberry jam. I lifted one, and laid the warm palm against my cheek.

“Apparently I do,” I said.

The hand curved, stroked my cheek, and dropped away. The big young hand moved slowly, smoothing the hair behind my ear with soft affection.

“It will be all right,” she said. “Everything will be all right.”

“Yes,” I said, and smiled, despite the tears blurring my eyes.

I couldn’t teach her to be a doctor. But evidently I had, without meaning to, somehow taught her to be a mother.

“You should go lie down,” she said, taking her hands away reluctantly. “It will be an hour at least, before they get here.”

I let my breath go out in a sigh, feeling the peace of the house around me. If Fraser’s Ridge had been a short-lived haven for Rosamund Lindsay, still it had been a true home. We would see her safe, and honored in death.

“In a minute,” I said, wiping my nose. “I need to finish something, first.”

I sat up straight and opened my book. I dipped my pen, and began to write the lines that must be there, for the sake of the unknown physician who would follow me.



September, 1772

I WOKE DRENCHED in sweat. The thin chemise in which I slept clung to me, transparent with wet; the darkness of my flesh showed in patches through the cloth, even in the dim light from the unshuttered window. I had kicked away sheet and quilt in my disordered sleep, and lay sprawled with the linen shift rucked up above my thighs—but still my skin pulsed with heat, waves of smothering warmth that flowed over me like melted candle wax.

I swung my legs over the side of the bed, and stood up, feeling dizzy and disembodied. My hair was soaked and my neck was slick with perspiration; a trickle of sweat ran down between my br**sts and disappeared.

Jamie was still asleep; I could see the humped mound of his upturned shoulder, and the spill of his hair, dark across the pillow. He shifted slightly and mumbled something, but then lapsed into the regular deep breaths of sleep. I needed air, but didn’t want to wake him. I pushed away the gauze netting, stepped softly across to the door, and into the small box-room across the hall.

It was a small room, but it had a large window, in order to balance the one in our bedroom. This one had no glass as yet; it was covered only by wooden shutters, and I could feel drafts of night air drifting through the slats, swirling across the floor, caressing my bare legs. Urgent for the coolness of it, I stripped off my wet shift and sighed in relief as the draft skimmed upward over h*ps and br**sts and arms.

The heat was still there, though, hot waves pulsing over my skin with each heartbeat. Fumbling in the dark, I unfastened the shutters and pushed them open, gasping for the great draughts of cool night that flooded in upon me.

From here, I could see above the trees that screened the house, down the slope of the ridge, almost to the faint black line of the river far away. The wind stirred in the treetops, murmuring, and wafted over me with blessed coolness and the pungent green smell of leaves and summer sap. I closed my eyes and stood still; within a minute or two, the heat was gone, vanished like a quenched coal, leaving me damp but peaceful.

I didn’t want to go back to bed yet; my hair was damp, and the sheets where I had lain would still be clammy. I leaned nak*d on the sill, the down-hairs of my body prickling pleasantly as my skin cooled. The peaceful whooshing of the trees was interrupted by the thin sound of a child’s wail, and I glanced toward the cabin.

It was a hundred yards from the house; the wind must be toward me, to have carried the sound. Sure enough, the wind changed as I leaned out of the window, and the crying was lost in the flutter of leaves. The breeze passed on, though, and I could hear the screeching, louder now, in the silence.

It was louder because it was getting closer. There was a creak and the groan of wood as the cabin door opened, and someone stepped out. There was no lamp or candle lit in the cabin, and the quick glimpse I had of the emerging figure showed me nothing but a tall form silhouetted against the dim glow of the banked hearth inside. It seemed to have long hair—but both Roger and Brianna slept with their hair untied and capless. It was pleasant to imagine Roger’s glossy black locks mingling with the fire of Brianna’s on the pillow—did they share a pillow? I wondered suddenly.

The screeching hadn’t abated. Fretful and cranky, but not agonized. Not belly-ache. A bad dream? I waited a moment, watching, to see whether whoever it was would bring the child to the house, in search of me, and put out a hand to my crumpled shift, just in case. No—the tall figure had vanished into the spruce grove; I could hear the receding wails. Not fever, then.

I realized that my br**sts had begun to tingle and stiffen in response to the crying, and smiled, a little ruefully. Strange, that instinct went so deep and lasted so long—would I come one day to a point when nothing in me stirred to the sound of a crying baby, to the scent of a man aroused, to the brush of my own long hair against the skin of my nak*d back? And if I did come to such a point—would I mourn the loss, I wondered, or find myself peaceful, left to contemplate existence without the intrusion of such animal sensations?

It wasn’t only the glories of the flesh that were the gifts of the world, after all; a doctor sees the plentiful miseries flesh is heir to, as well—and yet . . . standing cool in the flood of late summer’s air from the window, the boards smooth under my bare feet and the touch of wind on bare skin . . . I could not wish to be a pure spirit—not yet.

The crying grew louder, and I heard the low murmur of an adult’s voice below it, trying unsuccessfully to soothe it. Roger, then.

I cupped my br**sts gently, liking the soft, full weight of them. I remembered what they’d been like when I was very young; small hard swellings, so sensitive that the touch of a boy’s hand made me weak in the knees. The touch of my own hand, come to that. They were different now—and yet peculiarly the same.

This was not the discovery of a new and unimagined thing, but rather only a new awareness, the acknowledgment of something that had risen while my back was turned, like a shadow cast upon the wall, its presence unsuspected, seen only when I turned to look at it—but there all the time.

Oh, I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me,

And what can be the use of him, is more than I can see.

And if I turned my back again, the shadow would not leave me. It was irrevocably attached to me, whether I chose to notice it or not, crouched always insubstantial, intangible but present, small to vanishing under my feet when the light of other preoccupations shone upon me, blown up to gigantic proportions in the glare of some sudden urge.

Resident demon, or guardian angel? Or only the shadow of the beast, constant reminder of the inescapability of the body and its hungers?

Another noise mingled with the whinging below; coughing, I thought, but it didn’t stop, and the rhythm sounded wrong. I put my head out, cautious as a snail after a thunderstorm, and made out a few words in the rasping gurgle.

“. . . excavating for a mine . . . forty-niner . . . da-aughter, Clementine.”

Roger was singing.

I felt the tears sting my eyes, and drew my head in hastily, lest I be seen. There was no tune to it—the pitch varied no more than the hooting of wind across the mouth of an empty bottle—and yet it was music. A dogged, ragged gasp of a song, and yet Jemmy’s wailing quieted to sniffling sobs, as though he was trying to make out the words, so painfully forced through his father’s scarred throat.

“Fed she duck-lings . . . by the wa-ter . . .” He was having to gasp for breath after each whispered phrase, the sound of it like tearing linen. I curled my fingers into fists, as though by sheer force of will I could help him get the words out.

“Herring box-es . . . without top-ses . . . san-dals were for . . . Clementine.” The breeze was rising again, stirring in the tops of the trees. The next line was lost in their rustle, and I heard no more for a minute or two, strain my ears as I would.

Then I saw Jamie, standing still.

He made no noise, but I felt him at once; a warmth, a thickening, in the cool air of the room.

“Are ye well, Sassenach?” he asked softly from the doorway.

“Yes, fine.” I spoke in a whisper, not to wake Lizzie and her father, who slept in the back bedroom. “Just needed a breath of air; I didn’t mean to wake you.”

He came closer, a tall nak*d ghost, smelling of sleep.

“I always wake when you do, Sassenach; I sleep ill without ye by my side.” He touched my forehead briefly. “I thought ye were maybe fevered; the bed was damp where ye’d lain. You’re sure you’re all right?”

“I was hot; I couldn’t sleep. But yes, I’m all right. And you?” I touched his face; his skin was warm with sleep.

He came to stand beside me at the window, looking out into the late summer night. The moon was full, and the birds were restless; from near at hand, I heard the faint chirp of a late-nesting warbler, and farther off, the squeak of a hunting saw-whet owl.

“You recall Laurence Sterne?” Jamie asked, evidently reminded of the naturalist by the sounds.

“I doubt anyone who’s met him would forget him,” I said dryly. “The bag of dried spiders makes rather an impression. To say nothing of the smell.” Sterne carried with him a distinctive aroma, composed in equal parts of natural body odor, an expensive cologne that he favored—which was sufficiently strong to compete with—though not to conquer—the pungencies of various preservatives such as camphor and alcohol—and a faint reek of decay from the specimens he collected.