The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 35

   

Father Donahue was silhouetted in front of the glowing canvas, sitting on a stool behind a small folding table, on which were arrayed a few sheets of paper, an inkstand, and a quill. They might as well have been thumbscrews, pincers, and a red-hot poker, judging from his militantly upright attitude, evocative of expectant martyrdom.

The clinking of flint and tinderbox came from behind me, and then the faint glow of a light. This swelled, and a black boy—Mr. Lillywhite’s servant, I supposed—came forward and silently set a small oil lamp on the table.

Now that I got a clear look at the priest, the impression of martyrdom grew more pronounced. He looked like Saint Stephen after the first volley of stones, with a bruise on his chin and a first-rate black eye, empurpled from browridge to cheekbone and swollen quite shut.

The nonblackened eye widened at sight of me, and he started up with an exclamation of surprise.

“Father Kenneth.” I gripped him by the hand and squeezed, smiling broadly for the benefit of whatever audience might be peeking through the flap. “I’ve brought your medicine. How are you feeling?” I raised my eyebrows and waggled them, indicating that he should play along with the deception. He stared at me in fascination for a moment, but then appeared to catch on. He coughed, then, encouraged by my nod, coughed again, with more enthusiasm.

“It’s . . . very kind of ye to . . . think of me, Mrs. Fraser,” he wheezed, between hacks.

I pulled off the top of the flask, and poured out a generous measure of whisky.

“Are you quite all right, Father?” I asked, low-voiced, as I leaned across to hand it to him. “Your face . . .”

“Oh, it’s nothing, Mrs. Fraser dear, not at all,” he assured me, his faint Irish accent coming out under the stress of the occasion. “’Twas only that I made the mistake of resistin’ when the Sheriff arrested me. Not but what in the shock of it all, I didn’t do a small bit of damage to the poor man’s ballocks, and him only doing of his duty, may God forgive me.” Father Kenneth rolled his undamaged eye upward in a pious expression—quite spoiled by the unregenerate grin underneath.

Father Kenneth was no more than middle height, and looked older than his years by virtue of the hard wear imposed by long seasons spent in the saddle. Still, he was no more than thirty-five, and lean and tough as whipcord under his worn black coat and frayed linen. I began to understand the Sheriff’s belligerence.

“Besides,” he added, touching his black eye gingerly, “Mr. Lillywhite did tender me a most gracious apology for the hurt.” He nodded toward the table, and I saw that an opened bottle of wine and a pewter cup stood among the writing materials—the cup still full, and the level of wine in the bottle not down by much.

The priest picked up the whisky I had poured and drained it, closing his eyes in dreamy benediction.

“And a finer medicine I hope never to benefit from,” he said, opening them. “I do thank ye, Mistress Fraser. I’m that restored, I might walk on water meself.” He remembered to cough, this one a delicate hack, fist held over his mouth.

“What’s wrong with the wine?” I asked, with a glance toward the door.

“Oh, not a thing,” he said, taking his hand away. “Only that I did not think it quite right to accept the magistrate’s refreshments, under the circumstances. Call it conscience.” He smiled at me again, but this time with a note of wryness in the grin.

“Why have they arrested you?” I asked, my voice low. I looked again at the tent’s door, but it was empty, and I caught the murmur of voices outside. Evidently, Jamie had been right; they weren’t suspicious of me.

“For sayin’ of the Holy Mass,” he replied, lowering his voice to match mine. “Or so they said. It’s a wicked lie, though. I’ve not said Mass since last Sunday, and that was in Virginia.” He was looking wistfully at the flask. I picked it up and poured another generous tot.

I frowned a bit, thinking, while he drank it, more slowly this time. Whatever were Mr. Lillywhite and company up to? They couldn’t, surely, be meaning to bring the priest to trial on the charge of saying Mass. It would be no great matter to find false witnesses to say he had, of course—but what would be the point of it?

While Catholicism was certainly not popular in North Carolina, I could see no great purpose in the arrest of a priest who would be leaving in the morning in any case. Father Kenneth came from Baltimore and meant to return there; he had come to the Gathering only as a favor to Jocasta Cameron.

“Oh!” I said, and Father Kenneth looked at me inquiringly over the rim of his cup.

“Just a thought,” I said, gesturing to him to continue. “Do you happen to know whether Mr. Lillywhite is personally acquainted with Mrs. Cameron?” Jocasta Cameron was a prominent and wealthy woman—and one of strong character, therefore not without enemies. I couldn’t see why Mr. Lillywhite would go out of his way to disoblige her in such a peculiar fashion, even so, but . . .

“I am acquainted with Mrs. Cameron,” said Mr. Lillywhite, speaking behind me. “Though alas, I can claim no intimate friendship with the lady.” I whirled to find him standing just within the tent’s entrance, followed by Sheriff Anstruther and Mr. Goodwin, with Jamie bringing up the rear. The latter flicked an eyebrow at me, but otherwise maintained an expression of solemn interest.

Mr. Lillywhite bowed to me in acknowledgment.

“I have just been explaining to your husband, madame, that it is my regard for Mrs. Cameron’s interests that led me to attempt to regularize Mr. Donahue’s position, so as to allow his continued presence in the colony.” Mr. Lillywhite nodded coldly at the priest. “However, I am afraid my suggestion was summarily rejected.”

Father Kenneth put down his cup and straightened up, his working eye bright in the lamplight.

“They wish me to sign an oath, sir,” he said to Jamie, with a gesture at the paper and quill on the table before him. “To the effect that I do not subscribe to a belief in transubstantiation.”

“Do they, indeed.” Jamie’s voice betrayed no more than polite interest, but I understood at once what the priest had meant by his remark regarding conscience.

“Well, he can’t do that, can he?” I said, looking round the circle of men. “Catholics—I mean—we”—I spoke with some emphasis, looking at Mr. Goodwin—“do believe in transubstantiation. Don’t we?” I asked, turning to the priest, who smiled slightly in response, and nodded.

Mr. Goodwin looked unhappy, but resigned, his alcoholic joviality substantially reduced by the social awkwardness.

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Fraser, but that is the law. The only circumstance under which a clergyman who does not belong to the established Church may remain in the colony—legally—is upon the signing of such an oath. Many do sign it. You know the Reverend Urmstone, the Methodist circuit rider? He has signed the oath, as has Mr. Calvert, the New Light minister who lives near Wadesboro.”

The Sheriff looked smug. Repressing an urge to stamp on his foot, I turned to Mr. Lillywhite.

“Well, but Father Donahue can’t sign it. So what do you propose to do with him? Throw the poor man in gaol? You can’t do that—he’s ill!” On cue, Father Kenneth coughed obligingly.

Mr. Lillywhite eyed me dubiously, but chose instead to address Jamie.

“I could by rights imprison the man, but out of regard for you, Mr. Fraser, and for your aunt, I shall not do so. He must, however, leave the colony tomorrow. I shall have him escorted into Virginia, where he will be released from custody. You may rest assured that all care will be taken to assure his welfare on the journey.” He turned a cold gray eye on the Sheriff, who straightened up and tried to look reliable, with indifferent results.

“I see.” Jamie spoke lightly, looking from one man to another, his eyes coming to rest on the Sheriff. “I trust that is true, sir—for if I should hear of any harm coming to the good Father, I should be . . . most distressed.”

The Sheriff met his gaze, stone-faced, and held it until Mr. Lillywhite cleared his throat, frowning at the Sheriff.

“You have my word upon it, Mr. Fraser.”

Jamie turned to him, bowing slightly.

“I could ask no more, sir. And yet if I may presume—might the Father not spend tonight in comfort among his friends, that they might take their leave of him? And that my wife might attend his injuries? I would stand surety for his safe delivery into your hand come morning.”

Mr. Lillywhite pursed his lips and affected to consider this suggestion, but the magistrate was a poor actor. I realized with some interest that he had foreseen this request, and had his mind made up already to deny it.

“No, sir,” he said, trying for a tone of reluctance. “I regret that I cannot grant your request. Though if the priest wishes to write letters to various of his acquaintance”—he gestured at the sheaf of papers—“I will undertake to see them promptly delivered.”

Jamie cleared his own throat and drew himself up a bit.

“Well, then,” he said. “I wonder whether I might make so bold as to ask . . .” He paused, seeming slightly embarrassed.

“Yes, sir?” Lillywhite looked at him curiously.

“I wonder whether the good Father might be allowed to hear my confession.” Jamie’s eyes were fixed on the tent pole, sedulously avoiding mine.

“Your confession?”

Lillywhite looked astonished at this, though the Sheriff made a noise that might charitably be called a snigger.

“Got something pressing on your conscience?” Anstruther asked rudely. “Or p’r’aps you have some premonition of impending death, eh?” He gave an evil smile at this, and Mr. Goodwin, looking shocked, rumbled a protest at him. Jamie ignored both of them, focusing his regard on Mr. Lillywhite.

“Yes, sir. It has been some time since I last had the opportunity of being shriven, ye see, and it may well be some time before such a chance occurs again. As it is—” At this point, he caught my eye, and made a slight but emphatic motion with his head toward the tent flap. “If ye will excuse us for a moment, gentlemen?”

Not waiting for a response, he seized me by the elbow and propelled me swiftly outside.

“Brianna and Marsali are up the path wi’ the weans,” he hissed in my ear, the moment we were clear of the tent. “Make sure Lillywhite and yon bastard of a sheriff are well away, then fetch them in.”

Leaving me standing on the path, astonished, he ducked back into the tent.

“Your pardon, gentlemen,” I heard him say. “I thought perhaps . . . there are some things a man shouldna quite like to be saying before his wife . . . you understand?”

There were male murmurs of understanding, and I caught the word “confession” repeated in dubious tones by Mr. Lillywhite. Jamie lowered his voice to a confidential rumble in response, interrupted by a rather loud, “You what?” from the Sheriff, and a peremptory shushing by Mr. Goodwin.

There was a bit of confused conversation, then a shuffle of movement, and I barely made it off the path and into the shelter of the pines before the tent flap lifted and the three Protestants emerged from the tent. The day had all but faded now, leaving burning embers of sunlit cloud in the sky, but close as they were, there was enough light for me to see the air of vague embarrassment that beset them.

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