The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 28

   

“None so fast. I’ve a thing or two to say to ye, young man.”

He settled back on his chair, composing himself.

“Of course, Mrs. Cameron.”

“I wasna sure whether to speak now or wait until it was done—but as ye’re here alone now . . .” She bent toward him, intent.

“Did my niece tell ye, lad, that I meant to make her heiress to my property?”

“Aye, she did.”

He was at once on guard. Brianna had told him, all right—making it clear in no uncertain terms what she thought of that particular proposal. He steeled himself to repeat her objections now, hoping to do it more tactfully than she might have done herself. He cleared his throat.

“I’m sure my wife is most conscious of the honor, Mrs. Cameron,” he began cautiously, “but—”

“Is she?” Jocasta asked dryly. “I shouldna have thought so, to hear her talk. But doubtless ye ken her mind better than I do. Be that as it may, though, I mean to tell her that I’ve changed my own mind.”

“Oh? Well, I’m sure she’ll—”

“I’ve told Gerald Forbes to be drawing up a will, leaving River Run and all its contents to Jeremiah.”

“To—” It took a moment for his brain to make the connection. “What, to wee Jemmy?”

She was still leaning forward a little, as though peering at his face. Now she sat back, nodding, still holding firmly to his hand. It came to him, finally, that, unable to see his face, she thought to read him by means of this physical connection.

She was welcome to anything his fingers might tell her, he thought. He was too stunned at this news to have any notion how to respond to it. Christ, what would Bree say about it?

“Aye,” she said, and smiled pleasantly. “It came to me, ye see, as how a woman’s property becomes her husband’s when she weds. Not that there are no means of settling it upon her, but it’s difficult, and I wouldna involve lawyers more than I must—I think it always a mistake to go to the law, do ye not agree, Mr. MacKenzie?”

With a sense of complete astonishment, he realized that he was being deliberately insulted. Not only insulted, but warned. She thought—she did! She thought he was after Brianna’s presumed inheritance, and was warning him not to resort to any legal contortions to get it. Mingled shock and outrage sealed his tongue for a moment, but then he found words.

“Why, that is the most—so ye take thought for Joan Findlay’s pride, but ye think I have none? Mrs. Cameron, how dare ye suggest that—”

“Ye’re a handsome lad, Thrush,” she said, holding tight to his hand. “I’ve felt your face. And you’ve the name of MacKenzie, which is a good one, to be sure. But there are MacKenzies aplenty in the Highlands, aren’t there? Men of honor, and men without it. Jamie Roy calls ye kinsman—but perhaps that’s because ye’re handfast to his daughter. I dinna think I ken your family.”

Shock was giving way to a nervous impulse to laugh. Ken his family? Not likely; and how should he explain that he was the grandson—six times over—of her own brother, Dougal? That he was, in fact, not only Jamie’s nephew, but her own as well, if a bit further down the family tree than one might expect?

“Nor does anyone I’ve spoken to this week at the Gathering,” she added, head tilted to one side like a hawk watching prey.

So that was it. She’d been asking about him among her company—and had failed to turn up anyone who knew anything of his antecedents, for obvious reasons. A suspicious circumstance, to be sure.

He wondered whether she supposed he was a confidence trickster who had taken Jamie in, or whether perhaps he was meant to be involved in some scheme with Jamie? No, hardly that; Bree had told him that Jocasta had originally wanted to leave her property to Jamie—who had refused, wary of close involvement with the old leg-trap. His opinion of Jamie’s intelligence was reaffirmed.

Before he could think of some dignified retort, she patted his hand, still smiling.

“So, I thought to leave it all to the wee lad. That will be a tidy way of managing, won’t it? Brianna will have the use of the money, of course, until wee Jeremiah should come of age—unless anything should happen to the child, that is.”

Her voice held a definite note of warning, though her mouth continued to smile, her blank eyes still fixed wide on his face.

“What? What in the name of God d’ye mean by that?” He pushed his stool back, but she held tight to his hand. She was very strong, despite her age.

“Gerald Forbes will be executor of my will, and there are three trustees to manage the property,” she explained. “If Jeremiah should come to any mischief, though, then everything will go to my nephew Hamish.” Her face was quite serious now. “You’d not see a penny.”

He twisted his fingers in hers and squeezed, hard enough that he felt her bony knuckles press together. Let her read what she liked in that, then! She gasped, but he didn’t let go.

“Are ye saying to me that ye think I would harm that child?” His voice sounded hoarse to his own ears.

She had gone pale, but kept her dignity, teeth clenched and chin upraised.

“Have I said so?”

“Ye’ve said a great deal—and what ye’ve not said speaks louder than what ye have. How dare you imply such things to me?” He released her hand, all but flinging it back in her lap.

She rubbed her reddened fingers slowly with her other hand, lips pursed in thought. The canvas sides of the tent breathed in the wind with a crackling sound.

“Well, then,” she said at last. “I’ll offer ye my apology, Mr. MacKenzie, if I’ve wronged ye in any way. I thought it would be as well, though, for ye to know what was in my mind.”

“As well? As well for whom?” He was on his feet, and turned toward the flap. With great difficulty, he kept himself from seizing the china plates of cakes and biscuits and smashing them on the ground as a parting gesture.

“For Jeremiah,” she said levelly, behind him. “And Brianna. Perhaps, lad, even for you.”

He swung round, staring at her.

“Me? What d’ye mean by that?”

She gave the ghost of a shrug.

“If ye canna love the lad for himself, I thought ye might treat him well for the sake of his prospects.”

He stared at her, words jamming in his throat. His face felt hot, and the blood throbbed dully in his ears.

“Oh, I ken how it is,” she assured him. “It’s only to be understood that a man might not feel just so kindly toward a bairn his wife’s borne to another. But if—”

He stepped forward then and gripped her hard by the shoulder, startling her. She jerked, blinking, and the candle flames flashed from the cairngorm brooch.

“Madam,” he said, speaking very softly into her face. “I do not want your money. My wife does not want it. And my son will not have it. Cram it up your hole, aye?”

He let her go, turned, and strode out of the tent, brushing past Ulysses, who looked after him in puzzlement.

12

VIRTUE

PEOPLE MOVED THROUGH the gathering shadows of late afternoon, visiting from one fireside to another, as they had each day, but there was a different feeling on the mountain today.

In part it was the sweet sadness of leavetaking; the parting of friends, the severing of newfound loves, the knowledge that some faces would be seen tonight for the last time on earth. In part it was anticipation; the longing for home, the pleasures and dangers of the journey to come. In part, sheer weariness; cranky children, men harried by responsibility, women exhausted by the labor of cooking over open fires, maintaining a family’s clothes and health and appetites from the sustenance of saddlebags and mule packs.

I could sympathize with all three attitudes myself. Beyond the sheer excitement of meeting new people and hearing new talk, I had had the pleasure—for pleasure it definitely was, despite its grimmer aspects—of new patients, seeing novel ailments and curing what could be cured, grappling with the need to find a way to treat what could not.

But the longing for home was strong: my spacious hearth, with its huge cauldron and its roasting jack, the light-filled peace of my surgery, with the fragrant bunches of nettle and dried lavender overhead, dusty gold in the afternoon sun. My feather bed, soft and clean, linen sheets smelling of rosemary and yarrow.

I closed my eyes for a moment, summoning up a wistful vision of this haven of delight, then opened them to reality: a crusted griddle, black with the remnants of scorched oatcake; soggy shoes and frozen feet; damp clothes that chafed with grit and sand; hampers whose abundance had dwindled to a single loaf of bread—well-nibbled by mice—ten apples, and a heel of cheese; three screeching babies; one frazzled young mother with sore br**sts and cracked n**ples; one expectant bride with a case of incipient nerves; one white-faced serving-maid with menstrual cramps; four slightly inebriated Scotsmen—and one Frenchman in similar condition—who wandered in and out of camp like bears and were not going to be any help whatever in packing up this evening . . . and a deep, clenching ache in my lower belly that gave me the unwelcome news that my own monthly—which had grown thankfully much less frequent than monthly of late—had decided to keep Lizzie’s company.

I gritted my teeth, plucked a cold, damp clout off a clump of brush, and made my way duck-footed down the trail toward the women’s privy trench, thighs pressed together.

The first thing to greet me on my return was the hot stink of scorching metal. I said something very expressive in French—a useful bit of phraseology acquired at L’Hôpital des Anges, where strong language was often the best medical tool available.

Marsali’s mouth fell open. Germain looked at me in admiration and repeated the expression, correctly and with a beautiful Parisian accent.

“Sorry,” I said, looking to Marsali in apology. “Someone’s let the teakettle boil dry.”

“Nay matter, Mother Claire,” she said with a sigh, juggling little Joanie, who’d started to scream again. “It’s no worse than the things his father teaches him a-purpose. Is there a dry cloth?”

I was already hunting urgently for a dry cloth or a pot-lifter with which to grasp the wire handle, but nothing came to hand save soggy diapers and damp stockings. Kettles were hard to come by, though, and I wasn’t sacrificing this one. I wrapped my hand in a fold of my skirt, seized the handle, and jerked the kettle away from the flames. The heat shot through the damp cloth like a bolt of lightning, and I dropped it.

“Merde!” said Germain, in happy echo.

“Yes, quite,” I said, sucking a blistered thumb. The kettle hissed and smoked in the wet leaves, and I kicked at it, rolling it off onto a patch of mud.

“Merde, merde, merde, merde,” sang Germain, with a fair approximation of the tune of “Rose, Rose”—a manifestation of precocious musical feeling that went lamentably unappreciated in the circumstances.

“Do hush, child,” I said.

He didn’t. Jemmy began to screech in unison with Joan, Lizzie—who had had a relapse owing to the reluctant departure of Private Ogilvie—began to moan under her bush, and it started in to hail, small white pellets of ice dancing on the ground and pinging sharply off my scalp. I pulled the soggy mobcap off a branch and clapped it on my head, feeling like an extremely put-upon toad beneath a particularly homely mushroom. All it wanted was warts, I thought.

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