The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 37

   

I was on edge, keeping an ear out for any noises that might portend the return of Mr. Lillywhite and the Sheriff, envisioning just what sort of brouhaha might ensue if they did come back to discover Father Kenneth in the midst of what would surely be considered an illicit “ceremonial.”

I glanced back at Jamie; he was looking at me, and gave me a faint smile that I thought was likely meant for reassurance. If so, it failed utterly; I knew him too well. He wanted his grandchildren baptized, and he would see their souls safely given into God’s care, if he died for it—or if we all went to gaol, Brianna, Marsali, and the children included. Of such stuff are martyrs made, and their families are obliged to lump it.

“Do-you-believe-in-one-God-the-Father-the-Son-and-the-Holy-Ghost?”

“Stubborn man,” I mouthed at Jamie. His smile widened, and I turned back, hastily chiming in with his firm, “I do believe.” Was that a footfall on the path outside, or only the evening wind, making the tree branches crack as it passed?

The questions and responses finished, and the priest grinned at me, looking like a gargoyle in the flickering lamplight. His good eye closed briefly in a wink.

“We’ll take it that your answers will be the same for the others, shall we, ma’am? And what will be this sweet lad’s baptismal name?”

Not breaking his rhythm, the priest took up the whisky flask, and dribbled a careful stream of spirit onto the little boy’s head, repeating, “I baptize thee, Germain Alexander Claudel MacKenzie Fraser, in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, Amen.”

Germain watched this operation with profound interest, round blue eyes crossing as the amber liquid ran down the shallow bridge of his nose and dripped from its stubby tip. He put out a tongue to catch the drops, then made a face at the taste.

“Ick,” he said clearly. “Horse piss.”

Marsali made a brief, shocked “Tst!” at him, but the priest merely chuckled, swung Germain off the table, and beckoned to Bree.

She held Jemmy over the table, cradled in her arms like a sacrifice. She was intent on the baby’s face, but I saw her head twitch slightly, her attention drawn by something outside. There were sounds on the path below; I could hear voices. A group of men, I thought, talking together, voices genial but not drunken.

I tensed, trying not to look at Jamie. If they came in, I decided, I had better grab Germain, scramble under the far edge of the tent, and run for it. I took a preparatory grip on the collar of his gown, just in case. Then I felt a gentle nudge as Bree shifted her weight against me.

“It’s all right, Mama,” she whispered. “It’s Roger and Fergus.” She nodded toward the dark, then returned her attention to Jemmy.

It was, I realized, and the skin of my temples prickled with relief. Now that I knew, I could make out the imperious, slightly nasal sound of Fergus’s voice, raised in a lengthy oration of some kind, and a low Scottish rumble that I thought must be Roger’s. A higher-pitched titter that I recognized as Mr. Goodwin’s drifted through the night, followed by some remark in Mr. Lillywhite’s aristocratic drawl.

I did glance at Jamie this time. He still held the dirk, but his hand had fallen to his side, and his shoulders had lost a little of their tension. He smiled at me again, and this time I returned it.

Jemmy was awake, but drowsy. He made no objection to the oil, but startled at the cold touch of the whisky on his forehead, eyes popping open and arms flinging wide. He uttered a high-pitched “Yeep!” of protest, then, as Bree gathered him hastily up into his blanket against her shoulder, screwed up his face and tried to decide whether he was sufficiently disturbed to cry about it.

Bree patted his back like a bongo drum and made little hooting noises in his ear, distracting him. He settled for plugging his mouth with a thumb and glowering suspiciously at the assemblage, but by that time, Father Kenneth was already pouring whisky on the sleeping Joan, held low in Marsali’s arms.

“I baptize thee, Joan Laoghaire Claire Fraser,” he said, following Marsali’s lead, and I glanced at Marsali, startled. I knew she was called Joan for Marsali’s younger sister, but I hadn’t known what the baby’s other names would be. I felt a small lump in my throat, watching Marsali’s shawled head bent over the child. Both her sister and her mother, Laoghaire, were in Scotland; the chances of either ever seeing this tiny namesake were vanishingly small.

Suddenly, Joan’s slanted eyes popped wide open and so did her mouth. She let out a piercing shriek, and everyone started as though a bomb had exploded in our midst.

“Go in peace, to serve the Lord! And go fast!” Father Kenneth said, his fingers already nimbly corking up bottle and flask, frantically whisking away all traces of the ceremony. Down the path, I could hear voices raised in puzzled question.

Marsali was out the tent flap in a flash, the squalling Joan against her breast, a protesting Germain clutched by the hand. Bree paused just long enough to put a hand behind Father Kenneth’s head and kiss him on the forehead.

“Thank you, Father,” she whispered, and was gone in a flurry of skirts and petticoats.

Jamie had me by the arm and was hustling me out of the tent as well, but stopped for a half-second at the door, turning back.

“Father?” he called in a whisper. “Pax vobiscum!”

Father Kenneth had already seated himself behind the table, hands folded, the accusing sheets of blank paper spread out once more before him. He looked up, smiling slightly, and his face was perfectly at peace in the lamplight, black eye and all.

“Et cum spiritu tuo, man,” he said, and raised three fingers in parting benediction.

“WHAT ON EARTH did you do that for?” Brianna’s whisper floated back to me, loud with annoyance. She and Marsali were only a few feet in front of us, going slowly because of the children, but close as they were, the girls’ shawled and bunchy shapes were scarcely distinguishable from the bushes overgrowing the path.

“Do what? Leave that, Germain; let’s find Papa, shall we? No, don’t put it in your mouth!”

“You pinched Joanie—I saw you! You could have got us all caught!”

“But I had to!” Marsali sounded surprised at the accusation. “And it wouldna have mattered, really—the christening was done by then. They couldna make Father Kenneth take it back, now, could they?” She giggled slightly at the thought, then broke off. “Germain, I said drop it!”

“What do you mean, you had to? Let go, Jem, that’s my hair! Ow! Let go, I said!”

Jemmy was evidently now wide awake, interested in the novel surroundings, and wanting to explore them, judging from his repeated exclamations of “Argl!” punctuated by the occasional curious “Gleb?”

“Why, she was asleep!” Marsali said, sounding scandalized. “She didna wake when Father Kenneth poured the water—I mean the whisky—on her head—Germain, come back here! Thig air ais a seo!—and ye ken it’s ill luck for a child not to make a wee skelloch when it’s baptized; that’s how ye ken as the original sin is leaving it! I couldna let the diabhol stay in my wee lassie. Could I, mo mhaorine?” There were small kissing noises, and a faint coo from Joanie, promptly drowned by Germain, who had started to sing again.

Bree gave a small snort of amusement, her irritation fading.

“Oh, I see. Well, as long as you had a good reason. Though I’m not so sure it worked on Jemmy and Germain. Look at the way they’re acting—I’d swear they were possessed. Ow! Don’t bite me, you little fiend, I’ll feed you in a minute!”

“Och, well, they’re boys, after all,” Marsali said tolerantly, raising her voice slightly to be heard above the racket. “Everyone kens that boys are full o’ the devil; I suppose it would take more than a bit of holy water to drown it all, even if it was ninety-proof. Germain! Where did ye hear such a filthy song, ye wee ratten?”

I smiled, and next to me, Jamie laughed quietly, listening to the girls’ conversation. We were far enough from the scene of the crime by now not to worry about being heard, among the snatches of song, fiddle music, and laughter that flickered through the trees with the light of the campfires, bright against the growing dark.

The business of the day was largely done, and folk were settling down to the evening meal, before the calling, the singing, and the last round of visits started. The scents of smoke and supper trailed tantalizing fingers through the cold, dark air, and my stomach rumbled gently in answer to their summons. I hoped Lizzie was sufficiently restored as to have begun cooking.

“What’s mo mhaorine?” I asked Jamie. “I haven’t heard that one before.”

“It means ‘my wee potato,’ I think,” he said. “It’s Irish, aye? She learnt it from the priest.”

He sighed, sounding deeply satisfied with the evening’s work so far.

“May Bride bless Father Kenneth for a nimble-fingered man; for a moment, I thought we wouldna manage it. Is that Roger and wee Fergus?”

A couple of dark shadows had come out of the wood to join the girls, and the sound of muffled laughter and murmured voices—punctuated by raucous shrieks from both little boys at sight of their daddies—drifted back to us from the little knot of young families.

“It is. And speaking of that, my little sweet potato,” I said, taking a firm grip of his arm to slow him, “what do you mean by telling Father Kenneth all that about me and the butter churn?”

“Ye dinna mean to say ye minded, Sassenach?” he said, in tones of surprise.

“Of course I minded!” I said. The blood rose warm in my cheeks, though I wasn’t sure whether this was due to the memory of his confession—or to the memory of the original occasion. My innards warmed slightly at that thought as well, and the last remnants of cramp began to subside as my womb clenched and relaxed, eased by the pleasant inward glow. It was scarcely a suitable time or place, but perhaps later in the evening, we might manage sufficient privacy—I pushed the thought hastily aside.

“Privacy quite aside, it wasn’t a sin at all,” I said primly. “We’re married, for goodness’ sake!”

“Well, I did confess to telling lies, Sassenach,” he said. I couldn’t see the smile on his face, but I could hear it well enough in his voice. I supposed he could hear mine, too.

“I had to think of a sin frightful enough to drive Lillywhite away—and I couldna confess to theft or buggery; I may have to do business with the man one day.”

“Oh, so you think he’d be put off by sodomy, but he’d consider your attitude toward women in wet chemises just a minor flaw of character?” His arm was warm under the cloth of his shirt. I touched the underside of his wrist, that vulnerable place where the skin lay bare, and stroked the line of the vein that pulsed there, disappearing under the linen toward his heart.

“Keep your voice down, Sassenach,” he murmured, touching my hand. “Ye dinna want the bairns to hear ye. Besides,” he added, his voice dropping low enough that he was obliged to lean down and whisper in my ear, “it’s not all women. Only the ones with lovely round arses.” He let go my hand and patted my backside familiarly, showing remarkable accuracy in the darkness.

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