The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 36


They moved a few steps down the path, stopping no more than a few feet from my own hiding place. They stood in a cluster to confer, looking back at the tent, from which I could now hear Father Kenneth’s voice, raised in a formal Latin blessing. The lamp in the tent went out, and the forms of Jamie and the priest, dim shadows on the canvas, disappeared into a confessional darkness.

Anstruther’s bulk sidled closer to Mr. Goodwin.

“What in fuck’s name is transubstantiation?” he muttered.

I saw Mr. Goodwin’s shoulders straighten as he drew himself up, then hunch toward his ears in a shrug.

“In all honesty, sir, I am not positive of the meaning of the term,” he said, rather primly, “though I perceive it to be some form of pernicious Papist doctrine. Perhaps Mr. Lillywhite could supply you with a more complete definition—Randall?”

“Indeed,” the magistrate said. “It is the notion that by the priest’s speaking particular words in the course of offering his Mass, bread and wine are transformed into the very substance of Our Savior’s body and blood.”

“What?” Anstruther sounded confused. “How can anyone do that?”

“Change bread and wine into flesh and blood?” Mr. Goodwin sounded quite taken aback. “But that is witchcraft, surely!”

“Well, it would be, if it happened,” Mr. Lillywhite said, sounding a bit more human. “The Church very rightly holds that it does not.”

“Are we sure of that?” Anstruther sounded suspicious. “Have you seen them do it?”

“Have I attended a Catholic Mass? Assuredly not!” Lillywhite’s tall form drew up, austere in the gathering dusk. “What do you take me for, sir!”

“Now, Randall, I am sure the Sheriff means no offense.” Goodwin put a placatory hand on his friend’s arm. “His office deals with more earthly matters, after all.”

“No, no, no offense meant, sir, none at all,” Anstruther said hurriedly. “I was meaning more, like, has anybody seen this kind of goings-on, so as to be a decent witness, for the prosecution of it, I mean.”

Mr. Lillywhite appeared still to be somewhat offended; his voice was cold in reply.

“It is scarcely necessary to have witnesses to the heresy, Sheriff, as the priests themselves willingly admit to it.”

“No, no. Of course not.” The Sheriff’s squat form seemed to flatten obsequiously. “But if I’m right, sir, Papists do . . . er . . . partake of this—this transubwhatnot, aye?”

“Yes, so I am told.”

“Well, then. That’s frigging cannibalism, isn’t it?” Anstruther’s bulk popped up again, enthused. “I know that’s against the law! Why not let this bugger do his bit of hocus-pocus, and we’ll arrest the whole boiling lot of ’em, eh? Get shut of any number of the bastards at one blow, I daresay.”

Mr. Goodwin emitted a low moan. He appeared to be massaging his face, no doubt to ease a recurrent ache from his tooth.

Mr. Lillywhite exhaled strongly through his nose.

“No,” he said evenly. “I am afraid not, Sheriff. My instructions are that the priest is not to be allowed to perform any ceremonial, and shall be prevented from receiving visitors.”

“Oh, aye? And what’s he doing now, then?” Anstruther demanded, gesturing toward the darkened tent, where Jamie’s voice had begun to speak, hesitant and barely audible. I thought perhaps he was speaking in Latin.

“That is quite different,” Lillywhite said testily. “Mr. Fraser is a gentleman. And the prohibition against visitors is to insure that the priest shall perform no secret marriages; hardly a concern at present.”

“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.” Jamie’s voice spoke in English, suddenly louder, and Mr. Lillywhite started. Father Kenneth murmured interrogatively.

“I have been guilty of the sins of lust and impurity, both in thought and in my flesh,” Jamie announced—with what I thought rather more volume than was quite discreet.

“Oh, to be sure,” said Father Kenneth, suddenly louder too. He sounded interested. “Now, these sins of impurity—what form, precisely, did they take, my son, and upon how many occasions?”

“Aye, well. I’ve looked upon women with lust, to be starting with. How many occasions—oh, make it a hundred, at least, it’s been a time since I was last to confession. Did ye need to know which women, Father, or only what it was I thought of doing to them?”

Mr. Lillywhite stiffened markedly.

“I think we’ll not have time for the lot, Jamie dear,” said the priest. “But if ye were to tell me about one or two of these occasions, just so as I could be formin’ a notion as to the . . . er . . . severity of the offense . . . ?”

“Och, aye. Well, the worst was likely the time wi’ the butter churn.”

“Butter churn? Ah . . . the sort with the handle pokin’ up?” Father Kenneth’s tone encompassed a sad compassion for the lewd possibilities suggested by this.

“Oh, no, Father; it was a barrel churn. The sort that lies on its side, aye, with a wee handle to turn it? Well, it’s only that she was workin’ the churn with great vigor, and the laces of her bodice undone, so that her br**sts wobbled to and fro, and the cloth clinging to her with the sweat of her work. Now, the churn was just the right height—and curved, aye?—so as make me think of bendin’ her across it and lifting her skirts, and—”

My mouth opened involuntarily in shock. That was my bodice he was describing, my br**sts, and my butter churn! To say nothing of my skirts. I remembered that particular occasion quite vividly, and if it had started with an impure thought, it certainly hadn’t stopped there.

A rustling and murmuring drew my attention back to the men on the path. Mr. Lillywhite had grasped the Sheriff—still leaning avidly toward the tent, ears flapping—by the arm and was hissing at him as he forced him hastily down the path. Mr. Goodwin followed, though with an air of reluctance.

The noise of their departure had unfortunately drowned out the rest of Jamie’s description of that particular occasion of sin, but had luckily also covered the leaf-rustling and twig-snapping behind me that announced the appearance of Brianna and Marsali, Jemmy and Joan swaddled in their arms and Germain clinging monkeylike to his mother’s back.

“I thought they’d never go,” Brianna whispered, peering over my shoulder toward the spot where Mr. Lillywhite and his companions had disappeared. “Is the coast clear?”

“Yes, come along.” I reached for Germain, who leaned willingly into my arms.

“Ou nous allees, Grand-mère?” he inquired in a sleepy voice, blond head nuzzling affectionately into my neck.

“Shh. To see Grand-père and Father Kenneth,” I whispered to him. “We have to be very quiet, though.”

“Oh. Like this?” he hissed, in a loud whisper, and began to sing a very vulgar French song, chanting half under his breath.

“Shh!” I clapped a hand across his mouth, moist and sticky with whatever he’d been eating. “Don’t sing, sweetheart, we don’t want to wake the babies.”

I heard a small, stifled noise from Marsali, a strangled snort from Bree, and realized that Jamie was still confessing. He appeared to have hit his stride, and was now inventing freely—or at least I hoped so. He certainly hadn’t been doing any of that with me.

I poked my head out, looking up and down the trail, but no one was near. I motioned to the girls, and we scuttled across the path and into the darkened tent.

Jamie stopped abruptly as we fumbled our way inside. Then I heard him say quickly, “And sins of anger, pride, and jealousy—oh, and the odd wee bit of lying as well, Father. Amen.” He dropped to his knees, raced through an Act of Contrition in French, and was on his feet and taking Germain from me before Father Kenneth had finished saying the “Ego te absolvo.”

My eyes were becoming adapted to the dark; I could make out the voluminous shapes of the girls, and Jamie’s tall outline. He stood Germain on the table before the priest, saying, “Quickly, then, Father; we havena much time.”

“We haven’t any water, either,” the priest observed. “Unless you ladies thought to bring any?” He had picked up the flint and tinderbox, and was attempting to relight the lamp.

Bree and Marsali exchanged appalled glances, then shook their heads in unison.

“Dinna fash, Father.” Jamie spoke soothingly, and I saw him reach out a hand for something on the table. There was the brief squeak of a cork being drawn, and the hot, sweet smell of fine whisky filled the tent, as the light caught and grew from the wick, the wavering flame steadying to a small, clear light.

“Under the circumstances . . .” Jamie said, holding out the open flask to the priest.

Father Kenneth’s lips pressed together, though I thought with suppressed amusement, rather than irritation.

“Under the circumstances, aye,” he repeated. “And what should be more appropriate than the water of life, after all?” He reached up, undid his stock, and pulled up a leather string fastened round his neck, from which dangled a wooden cross and a small glass bottle, stoppered with a cork.

“The holy chrism,” he explained, undoing the bottle and setting it on the table. “Thank the Virgin Mother that I had it on my person. The Sheriff took the box with my Mass things.” He made a quick inventory of the objects on the table, counting them off on his fingers. “Fire, chrism, water—of a sort—and a child. Very well, then. You and your husband will stand as godparents to him, I suppose, ma’am?”

This was addressed to me, Jamie having gone to take up a station by the tent flap.

“For all of them, Father,” I said, and took a firm grip on Germain, who seemed disposed to leap off the table. “Hold still, darling, just for a moment.”

I heard a small whish behind me; metal drawn from oiled leather. I glanced back to see Jamie, dim in the shadows, standing guard by the door with his dirk in his hand. A qualm of apprehension curled through my belly, and I heard Bree draw in her breath beside me.

“Jamie, my son,” said Father Kenneth, in a tone of mild reproval.

“Be going on with it, if ye please, Father,” Jamie replied, very calmly. “I mean to have my grandchildren baptized this night, and no one shall prevent it.”

The priest drew in his breath with a slight hiss, then shook his head.

“Aye. And if you kill someone, I hope there’ll be time for me to shrive you again before they hang us both,” he muttered, reaching for the oil. “If there’s a choice about it, try for the Sheriff, will you, man dear?”

Switching abruptly to Latin, he pushed back Germain’s heavy mop of blond hair and his thumb flicked deftly over forehead, lips, and then—diving under the boy’s gown in a gesture that made Germain double up in giggles—heart, in the sign of the Cross.

“On-behalf-of-this-child-do-you-renounce-Satan-and-all-his-works?” he asked, speaking so fast that I scarcely realized he was speaking English again, and barely caught up in time to join with Jamie in the godparents’ response, dutifully reciting, “I do renounce them.”