The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 27

   

Perhaps he should mention Joan Findlay to Brianna, he thought, as further evidence that marriage and childbirth were not necessarily mortal to women. Or perhaps it was better just to leave that subject lie quiet for a bit.

Beyond thoughts of Joan and her children, though, he was haunted by the soft, bright eyes of Iain Mhor. How old was he? Roger wondered, grasping the springy branch of a pine to keep from sliding down a patch of loose gravel. Impossible to tell from looking; the pale, twisted face was lined and worn—but with pain and struggle, not age. He was no larger than a boy of twelve or so, but Iain Mhor was older than his namesake, clearly—and Iain Og was sixteen.

He was likely younger than Joan; but perhaps not. She had treated him with deference, bringing Roger to him as a woman would naturally bring a visitor to the head of the family. Not greatly younger, then—say thirty or more?

Christ, he thought, how did a man like that survive so long in times like these? But as he had backed awkwardly away from Iain Mhor, one of the little girls had crawled into the crude shelter from the back, pushing a bowl of milk pudding before her, and had sat down matter-of-factly by her uncle’s head, spoon in hand. Iain Mhor had limbs and fingers enough—he had a family.

That thought gave Roger a tight feeling in his chest, somewhere between pain and gladness—and a sinking feeling lower down, as he recalled Joan Findlay’s words.

Send them safe home. Aye, and if he didn’t, then Joan was left with two young girls and a helpless brother. Had she any property? he wondered.

He had heard a good deal of talk on the mountain about the Regulation since the morning’s Proclamation. Given that the matter had plainly not been sufficiently important to make it into the history books, he thought this militia business was unlikely to come to anything. If it did, though, he vowed to himself that he would find some way of keeping Iain Og and Hugh Findlay well away from any danger. And if there was bounty money, they should have their share.

In the meantime . . . he hesitated. He had just passed Jocasta Cameron’s camp, bustling like a small village, with its cluster of tents, wagons, and lean-tos. In anticipation of her wedding—now a double wedding—Jocasta had brought almost all of her house slaves, and not a few of the field hands as well. Beyond the livestock, tobacco, and goods brought for trade, there were trunks of clothes and bedding and dishes, trestles, tables, hogsheads of ale, and mountains of food intended for the celebration afterward. He and Bree had breakfasted with Mrs. Cameron in her tent this morning off china painted with roses: slices of succulent fried ham, studded with cloves, oatmeal porridge with cream and sugar, a compote of preserved fruit, fresh corn dodgers with honey, Jamaican coffee . . . his stomach contracted with a pleasant growl of recollection.

The contrasts between that lavishness and the recent poverty of the Findlay encampment were too much to be borne with complacence. He turned upon his heel with sudden decision, and began the short climb back to Jocasta’s tent.

Jocasta Cameron was at home, so to speak; he saw her mud-soaked boots outside the tent. Sightless as she was, she still ventured out to call upon friends, escorted by Duncan or her black butler, Ulysses. More often, though, she allowed the Gathering to come to her, and her own tent seethed with company throughout the day, all the Scottish society of the Cape Fear and the colony coming to enjoy her renowned hospitality.

For the moment, though, she seemed fortunately alone. Roger caught a glimpse of her through the lifted flap, reclining in her cane-bottomed chair, feet in slippers, and her head fallen back in apparent repose. Her body servant, Phaedre, sat on a stool near the open tent flap, needle in hand, squinting in the hazy light over a spill of blue fabric that filled her lap.

Jocasta sensed him first; she sat up in her armchair, and her head turned sharply as he touched the tent flap. Phaedre glanced up belatedly, reacting to her mistress’s movement rather than his presence.

“Mr. MacKenzie. It is the Thrush, is it no?” Mrs. Cameron said, smiling in his direction.

He laughed, and ducked his head to enter the tent, obeying her gesture.

“It is. And how did ye ken that, Mrs. Cameron? I’ve said not a word, let alone sung one. Have I a tuneful manner of breathing?” Brianna had told him of her aunt’s uncanny ability to compensate for her blindness by means of other senses, but he was still surprised at her acuity.

“I heard your step, and then I smelt the blood on you,” she said matter-of-factly. “The wound’s come open again, has it not? Come, lad, sit. Will we fetch ye a dish of tea, or a dram? Phaedre—a cloth, if ye please.”

His fingers went involuntarily to the gash in his throat. He’d forgotten it entirely in the rush of the day’s events, but she was right; it had bled again, leaving a crusty stain down the side of his neck and over the collar of his shirt.

Phaedre was already up, assembling a tray from the array of cakes and biscuits on a small table by Jocasta’s chair. Were it not for the earth and grass underfoot, Roger thought, he would scarcely know they were not in Mrs. Cameron’s drawing room at River Run. She was wrapped in a woolen arisaid, but even that was fastened by a handsome cairngorm brooch.

“It’s nothing,” he said, self-conscious, but Jocasta took the cloth from her maid’s hand and insisted on cleaning the cut herself. Her long fingers were cool on his skin, and surprisingly deft.

She smelled of woodsmoke, as everybody on the mountain did, and the tea she had been drinking, but there was none of the faintly camphorated musty odor he normally associated with elderly ladies.

“Tch, ye’ve got it on your shirt,” she informed him, fingering the stiff fabric disapprovingly. “Will we launder it for ye? Though I dinna ken d’ye want to wear it sopping; it’ll never dry by nightfall.”

“Ah, no, ma’am. I thank ye, I’ve another. For the wedding, I mean.”

“Well, then.” Phaedre had produced a small pot of medicinal grease; he recognized it as one of Claire’s, by the smell of lavender and goldenseal. Jocasta scooped up a thumbnail of the ointment and spread it carefully over his wound, her fingers steady on his jawbone.

Her skin was well-kept and soft, but it showed the effects not only of age but weather. There were ruddy patches in her cheeks, nets of tiny broken veins that from a slight distance lent her an air of health and vitality. Her hands showed no liver spots—of course, she was of a wealthy family; she would have worn gloves out-of-doors all her life—but the joints were knobbed and the palms slightly callused from the tug of reins. Not a hothouse flower, this daughter of Leoch, despite her surroundings.

Finished, she passed her hand lightly over his face and head, picked a dried leaf from his hair, then wiped his face with the damp cloth, surprising him. She dropped the cloth, then took his hand, wrapping her own fingers around his.

“There, now. Presentable once more! And now that ye’re fit for company, Mr. MacKenzie—did ye come to speak to me, or were ye only passing by?”

Phaedre put down a dish of tea and a saucer of cake by his side, but Jocasta continued to hold his left hand. He found that odd, but the unexpected atmosphere of intimacy made it slightly easier to begin his request.

He put it simply; he had heard the Reverend make such requests for charity before, and knew it was best to let the situation speak for itself, leaving ultimate decision to the conscience of the hearer.

Jocasta listened carefully, a small furrow between her brows. He’d expected her to pause for thought when he’d finished, but instead she replied at once.

“Aye,” she said, “I ken Joanie Findlay, and her brother, too. Ye’re right, her husband was carried off by the consumption, two year gone. Jamie Roy spoke to me of her yesterday.”

“Oh, he did?” Roger felt mildly foolish.

Jocasta nodded. She leaned back a little, pursing her lips in thought.

“It’s no just a matter of offering help, ye ken,” she explained. “I’m glad of the chance. But she’s a proud woman, Joan Findlay—she willna take charity.” Her voice held a slight note of reproval, as though Roger ought to have realized that.

Perhaps he should, he thought. But he had acted on the impulse of the moment, moved by the Findlays’ poverty. It hadn’t occurred to him that if she had little else, it would be that much more important to Joan Findlay to cling to her one valuable possession—her pride.

“I see,” he said slowly. “But surely—there must be a way to help that wouldn’t offer offense?”

Jocasta tilted her head slightly to one side, then the other, in a small mannerism that he found peculiarly familiar. Of course—Bree did that now and then, when she was considering something.

“There may be,” she said. “The feast tonight—for the wedding, aye?—the Findlays will be there, of course, and well-fed. It wouldna be amiss for Ulysses to make up a wee parcel of food for them to take for the journey home—’twould save it spoiling, after all.” She smiled briefly, then the look of concentration returned to her features.

“The priest,” she said, with a sudden air of satisfaction.

“Priest? Ye mean Father Donahue?”

One thick, burnished brow lifted at him.

“Ye ken another priest on the mountain? Aye, of course I do.” She lifted her free hand, and Phaedre, ever alert, came to her mistress’s side.

“Miss Jo?”

“Look out some bits from the trunks, lass,” Jocasta said, touching the maid’s arm. “Blankets, caps, an apron or two; breeks and plain shirts—the grooms can spare them.”

“Stockings,” Roger put in quickly, thinking of the little girls’ dirty bare feet.

“Stockings.” Jocasta nodded. “Plain stuff, but good wool and well-mended. Ulysses has my purse. Tell him to give ye ten shillings—sterling—and wrap it in one o’ the aprons. Then make a bundle of the things and take them to Father Donahue. Tell him they’re for Joan Findlay, but he’s no to say where they’ve come from. He’ll know what to say.” She nodded again, satisfied, and dropped her hand from the maid’s arm, making a little shooing gesture.

“Off wi’ ye, then—see to it now.”

Phaedre murmured assent and left the tent, pausing only to shake out the blue thing she had been sewing and fold it carefully over her stool. It was a decorated stomacher for Brianna’s wedding dress, he saw, done with an elegant lacing of ribbons. He had a sudden vision of Brianna’s white br**sts, swelling above a low neckline of dark indigo, and returned to the conversation at hand with some difficulty.

“I beg your pardon, ma’am?”

“I said—will that do?” Jocasta was smiling at him, with a slightly knowing expression, as though she had been able to read his thoughts. Her eyes were blue, like Jamie’s and Bree’s, but not so dark. They were fixed on him—or at least pointed at him. He knew she could not see his face, but she did give the eerie impression of being able to see through him.

“Yes, Mrs. Cameron. That’s—it’s most kind of ye.” He brought his feet under him, to stand and take his leave. He expected her to let go of his hand at once, but instead, she tightened her grip, restraining him.

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