The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 38

   

“I wouldna cross the road to see a scrawny woman, if she were stark nak*d and dripping wet. As for Lillywhite,” he resumed, in a more normal tone of voice, but without removing his hand, which was molding the cloth of my skirt thoughtfully round one buttock, “he may be a Protestant, Sassenach, but he’s still a man.”

“I didn’t realize the two states were incompatible,” Roger’s voice said dryly, coming out of the darkness nearby.

Jamie snatched his hand away as though my bottom were on fire. It wasn’t—quite—but there was no denying that his flint had struck a spark or two among the kindling, damp as it was. It was a long time before bedtime, though.

Pausing just long enough to administer a brief, private squeeze to Jamie’s anatomy that made him gasp sharply, I turned to find Roger clasping a large wriggling object in his arms, its nature obscured by the dark. Not a piglet, I surmised, despite the loud grunting noises it was making, but rather Jemmy, who seemed to be gnawing fiercely on his father’s knuckles. A small pink fist shot out into a random patch of light, clenched in concentration, then disappeared, meeting Roger’s ribs with a solid thump.

Jamie gave a small grunt of amusement himself, but wasn’t discomposed in the slightest by having his opinion of Protestants overheard.

“‘All are gude lasses,’ ” he quoted in broad Scots, “‘but where do the ill wives come frae?’ ”

“Eh?” Roger said, sounding a bit bewildered.

“Protestants are born wi’ pricks,” Jamie explained, “the men, at least—but some let them wither from disuse. A man who spends his time pokin’ his . . . nose into others’ sinfulness has nay time to tend his own.”

I converted a laugh into a more tactful cough.

“And some just become bigger pricks, what with the practice,” Roger said, more dryly still. “Aye, well. I came to thank you . . . for managing about the baptism, I mean.”

I noticed the slight hesitation; he still had not settled on any comfortable name by which to call Jamie to his face. Jamie addressed him impartially as “Wee Roger,” “Roger Mac,” or “MacKenzie”—more rarely, by the Gaelic nickname Ronnie Sinclair had given Roger, a Smeòraich, in honor of his voice. Singing Thrush, it meant.

“It’s me should be thanking you, a charaid. We shouldna have managed there at the last, save for you and Fergus,” Jamie said, laughter warming his own voice.

Roger was clearly visible in outline, tall and lean, with the glow of someone’s fire behind him. One shoulder rose as he shrugged, and he shifted Jemmy to his other arm, wiping residual drool from his hand against the side of his breeches.

“No trouble,” he said, a little gruffly. “Will the—the Father be all right, d’ye think? Brianna said he’d been roughly handled. I hope they’ll not mistreat him, once he’s away.”

Jamie sobered at that. He shrugged a little as he straightened the coat on his shoulders.

“I think he’ll be safe enough, aye—I had a word with the Sheriff.” There was a certain grim emphasis on “word” that made his meaning clear. A substantial bribe might have been more effective, but I was well aware that we had exactly two shillings, threepence, and nine farthings in cash to our names at the moment. Better to save the money and rely on threats, I thought. Evidently Jamie was of the same mind.

“I shall speak to my aunt,” he said, “and have her send a note tonight to Mr. Lillywhite, wi’ her own opinion on the subject. That will be a better safeguard for Father Kenneth than anything I can say myself.”

“I don’t suppose she’ll be at all pleased to hear that her wedding is postponed,” I observed. She wouldn’t be. Daughter of a Highland laird and widow of a very rich planter, Jocasta Cameron was used to having her own way.

“No, she won’t,” Jamie agreed wryly, “though I suppose Duncan may be a bit relieved.”

Roger laughed, not without sympathy, and fell in beside us as we started down the path. He shifted Jemmy, still grunting ferociously, under his arm like a football.

“Aye, he will. Poor Duncan. So the weddings are definitely off, are they?”

I couldn’t see Jamie’s frown, but I felt the movement as he shook his head doubtfully.

“Aye, I’m afraid so. They wouldna give the priest to me, even with my word to hand him over in the morning. We could maybe take him by force, but even so—”

“I doubt that would help,” I interrupted, and told them what I had overheard while waiting outside the tent.

“So I can’t see them standing round and letting Father Kenneth perform marriages,” I finished. “Even if you got him away, they’d be combing the mountain for him, turning out tents and causing riots.”

Sheriff Anstruther wouldn’t be without aid; Jamie and his aunt might be held in good esteem among the Scottish community, but Catholics in general and priests in particular weren’t.

“Instructions?” Jamie repeated, sounding astonished. “You’re sure of it, Sassenach? It was Lillywhite who said he had ‘instructions’?”

“It was,” I said, realizing for the first time how peculiar that was. The Sheriff was plainly taking instructions from Mr. Lillywhite, that being his duty. But who could be giving instructions to the magistrate?

“There’s another magistrate here, and a couple of justices of the peace, but surely . . .” Roger said slowly, shaking his head as he thought. A loud squawk interrupted his thoughts, and he glanced down, the light from a nearby fire shining off the bridge of his nose, outlining a faint smile as he spoke to his offspring. “What? You’re hungry, laddie? Don’t fret yourself, Mummy will be back soon.”

“Where is Mummy?” I said, peering into the shifting mass of shadows ahead. A light wind had risen, and the bare branches of oak and hickory rattled like sabers overhead. Still, Jemmy was more than loud enough for Brianna to hear him. I caught Marsali’s voice faintly up ahead, engaged in what appeared to be amiable conversation with Germain and Fergus regarding supper, but there was no sound of Bree’s lower, huskier Boston-bred tones.

“Why?” Jamie said to Roger, raising his voice to be heard over the wind.

“Why what? Here, Jem, see that? Want it? Aye, of course ye do. Yes, good lad, gnaw on that for a bit.” A spark of light caught something shiny in Roger’s free hand; then the object disappeared, and Jemmy’s cries ceased abruptly, succeeded by loud sucking and slurping noises.

“What is that? It isn’t small enough for him to swallow, is it?” I asked anxiously.

“Ah, no. It’s a watch chain. Not to worry,” Roger assured me, “I’ve a good grip on the end of it. If he swallows it, I can pull it back out.”

“Why would someone not want you to be married?” Jamie said patiently, ignoring the imminent danger to his grandson’s digestive system.

“Me?” Roger sounded surprised. “I shouldn’t think anyone cares whether I’m married or not, save myself—and you, perhaps,” he added, a touch of humor in his voice. “I expect ye’d like the boy to have a name. Speaking of that”—he turned to me, the wind pulling long streamers of his hair loose and turning him into a wild black fiend in silhouette—“what did he end up being named? At the christening, I mean.”

“Jeremiah Alexander Ian Fraser MacKenzie,” I said, hoping I recalled it correctly. “Is that what you wanted?”

“Oh, I didn’t mind so much what he was called,” Roger said, edging gingerly round a large puddle that spread across the path. It had begun to sprinkle again; I could feel small chilly drops on my face, and see the dimpling of the water in the puddle where the firelight shone across it.

“I wanted Jeremiah, but I told Bree the other names were up to her. She couldn’t quite decide between John for John Grey, and—and Ian, for her cousin, but of course they’re the same name in any case.”

Again I noticed the faint hesitation, and I felt Jamie’s arm stiffen slightly under my hand. Jamie’s nephew Ian was a sore point—and fresh in everyone’s mind, thanks to the note we had received from him the day before. That must be what had decided Brianna at last.

“Well, if it isna you and my daughter,” Jamie pursued doggedly, “then who is it? Jocasta and Duncan? Or the folk from Bremerton?”

“You think someone’s out specially to prevent the marriages tonight?” Roger seized the opportunity to talk about something other than Ian Murray. “You don’t think it’s just general dislike of Romish practices, then?”

“It might be, but it’s not. If it were, why wait ’til now to arrest the priest? Wait a bit, Sassenach, I’ll fetch ye over.”

Jamie let go of my hand and stepped round the puddle, then reached back, grabbed me by the waist, and lifted me bodily across in a swish of skirts. The wet leaves slipped and squelched under my boots as he set me down, but I seized his arm for balance, righting myself.

“No,” Jamie continued the conversation, turning back toward Roger. “Lillywhite and Anstruther have no great love of Catholics, I expect, but why stir up a stramash now, when the priest would be gone in the morning, anyway? Do they maybe think he’ll corrupt all the God-fearing folk on the mountain before dawn if they dinna keep him in ward?”

Roger gave a short laugh at that.

“No, I suppose not. Is there anything else the priest was meant to do tonight, beyond performing marriages and baptisms?”

“Perhaps a few confessions,” I said, pinching Jamie’s arm. “Nothing else that I know of.” I squeezed my thighs together, feeling an alarming shift in my intimate arrangements. Damn, one of the pins holding the cloth between my legs had come loose when Jamie lifted me. Had I lost it?

“I don’t suppose they’d be trying to keep him from hearing someone’s confession? Someone in particular, I mean?” Roger sounded doubtful, but Jamie took the idea and turned it round in his hands, considering.

“They’d no objection to his hearing mine. And I shouldna think they’d care if a Catholic was in mortal sin or not, as by their lights, we’re all damned anyway. But if they kent someone desperately needed confession, and they thought there was something to be gained by it . . .”

“That whoever it was might pay for access to the priest?” I asked skeptically. “Really, Jamie, these are Scots. I should imagine that if it were a question of paying out hard money for a priest, your Scottish Catholic murderer or adulterer would just say an Act of Contrition and hope for the best.”

Jamie snorted slightly, and I saw the white mist of his breath purl round his head like candle smoke; it was getting colder.

“I daresay,” he said dryly. “And if Lillywhite had any thought of setting up in the confession business, he’s left it a bit late in the day to make much profit. But what if it wasna a matter of stopping someone’s confession—but rather only of making sure that they overheard it?”

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