The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 39

   

Roger uttered a pleased grunt, evidently thinking this a promising supposition.

“Blackmail? Aye, that’s a thought,” he said, with approval. Blood will out, I thought; Oxford-educated or not, there was little doubt that Roger was a Scot. There was a violent upheavel under his arm, followed by a wail from Jemmy. Roger glanced down.

“Oh, did ye drop your bawbee? Where’s it gone, then?” He hoicked Jemmy up onto his shoulder like a bundle of laundry and squatted down, poking at the ground in search of the watch chain, which Jemmy had evidently hurled into the darkness.

“Blackmail? I think that’s a trifle far-fetched,” I objected, rubbing a hand under my nose, which had begun to drip. “You mean they might suspect that Farquard Campbell, for instance, had committed some dreadful crime, and if they knew about it for sure, they could hold him up about it? Isn’t that awfully devious thinking? If you find a pin down there, Roger, it’s mine.”

“Well, Lillywhite and Anstruther are Englishmen, are they not?” Jamie said, with a delicate sarcasm that made Roger laugh. “Deviousness and double-dealing come naturally to that race, no, Sassenach?”

“Oh, rubbish,” I said tolerantly. “Pot calling the kettle black isn’t in it. Besides, they didn’t try to overhear your confession.”

“I havena got anything to be blackmailed for,” Jamie pointed out, though it was perfectly obvious that he was only arguing for the fun of it.

“Even so,” I began, but was interrupted by Jemmy, who was becoming increasingly restive, flinging himself to and fro with intermittent steam-whistle shrieks. Roger grunted, pinched something gingerly between his fingers, and stood up.

“Found your pin,” he said. “No sign of the chain, though.”

“Someone will find it in the morning,” I said, raising my voice to be heard over the increasing racket. “Perhaps you’d better let me take him.” I reached for the baby, and Roger surrendered his burden with a distinct air of relief—explained when I got a whiff of Jemmy’s diaper.

“Not again?” I said. Apparently taking this as a personal reproach, he shut his eyes and started to howl like an air-raid siren.

“Where is Bree?” I asked, trying simultaneously to cradle him reassuringly and to keep him at a sanitary distance. “Ouch!” He seemed to have taken advantage of the darkness to grow a number of extra limbs, all of which were flailing or grabbing.

“Oh, she’s just gone to run a wee errand,” Roger said, with an air of vagueness that made Jamie turn his head sharply. The light caught him in profile, and I saw the thick red brows drawn down in suspicion. Fire gleamed off the long, straight bridge of his nose as he lifted it, questioning. Obviously, he smelled a rat. He turned toward me, one eyebrow lifted. Was I in on it?

“I haven’t any idea,” I assured him. “Here, I’m going across to McAllister’s fire to borrow a clean clout. I’ll see you at our camp in a bit.”

Not waiting for an answer, I took a firm grasp on the baby and shuffled into the bushes, heading for the nearest campsite. Georgiana McAllister had newborn twins—I’d delivered them four days before—and was happy to provide me with both a clean diaper and a private bush behind which to effect my personal repairs. These accomplished, I chatted with her and admired the twins, all the while wondering about the recent revelations. Between Lieutenant Hayes and his proclamation, the machinations of Lillywhite and company, and whatever Bree and Roger were up to, the mountain seemed a perfect hotbed of conspiracy tonight.

I was pleased that we had managed the christening—in fact, I was surprised to find just how gratified I did feel about it—but I had to admit to a pang of distress over Brianna’s canceled wedding. She hadn’t said much about it, but I knew that both she and Roger had been looking forward very much to the blessing of their union. The firelight winked briefly, accusingly, off the gold ring on my left hand, and I mentally threw up my hands in Frank’s direction.

And just what do you expect me to do about it? I demanded silently, while externally agreeing with Georgiana’s opinion on the treatment of pinworms.

“Ma’am?” One of the older McAllister girls, who had volunteered to change Jemmy, interrupted the conversation, dangling a long, slimy object delicately between two fingers. “I found this gaud in the wean’s cloot; is it maybe your man’s?”

“Good grief!” I was shocked by the watch chain’s reappearance, but a moment’s rationality corrected my first alarmed impression that Jemmy had in fact swallowed the thing. It would take several hours for a solid object to make its way through even the most active infant’s digestive tract; evidently he had merely dropped his toy down the front of his gown and it had come to rest in his diaper.

“Gie it here, lass.” Mr. McAllister, catching sight of the watch chain, reached out and took it with a slight grimace. He pulled a large handkerchief from the waist of his breeks and wiped the object carefully, bringing to light the gleam of silver links and a small round fob, bearing some kind of seal.

I noted the fob with some grimness, and made a mental resolve to give Roger a proper bollocking about what he let Jemmy put in his mouth. Thank goodness it hadn’t come off.

“Why, that’s Mr. Caldwell’s wee gaud, surely!” Georgiana leaned forward, peering over the heads of the twins she was nursing.

“Is it?” Her husband squinted at the object, and fumbled in his shirt for his spectacles.

“Aye, I’m sure it is! I saw it when he preached Sunday. The first of my pains was just comin’ on,” she explained, turning to me, “and I had to come away before he’d finished. He saw me turn to go, and must ha’ thought he’d outstayed his welcome, for he pulled the watch from his pocket to have a wee keek, and I saw the glint from that bittie round thing on the chain.”

“That’s called a seal, a nighean,” her husband informed her, having now settled a pair of half-moon spectacles firmly atop his nose, and turning the little metal emblem over between his fingers. “You’re right, though, it’s Mr. Caldwell’s, for see?” A horny finger traced the outline of the figure on the seal: a mace, an open book, a bell, and a tree, standing on top of a fish with a ring in its mouth.

“That’s from the University of Glasgow, that is. Mr. Caldwell’s a scholar,” he told me, blue eyes wide with awe. “Been to learn the preachin’, and a fine job he makes of it.

“You did miss a fine finish, Georgie,” he added, turning to his wife. “He went sae red in the face, talkin’ of the Abomination of Desolation and the wrath at world’s end, that I thought surely he’d have an apoplexy, and then what should we do? For he wouldna have Murray MacLeod to him, Murray bein’ in the way of a heretic to Mr. Caldwell—he’s New Light, Murray”—Mr. McAllister explained in an aside to me—“and Mrs. Fraser here a Papist, as well as bein’ otherwise engaged wi’ you and the bairns.”

He leaned over and patted one of the twins gently on its bonneted head, but it paid no attention, blissfully absorbed in its suckling.

“Hmp. Well, Mr. Caldwell could ha’ burst himself, for all I cared at the time,” his wife said frankly. She hitched up her double armload and settled herself more comfortably. “And for mysel’, I shouldna much mind if the midwife was a red Indian or English—oh, I do beg your pardon, Mrs. Fraser—so long as she kent how to catch a babe and stop the bleedin’.”

I murmured something modest, brushing away Georgiana’s apologies, in favor of finding out more about the watch chain’s origins.

“Mr. Caldwell. He’s a preacher, you say?” A certain suspicion was stirring in the back of my mind.

“Oh, aye, the best I’ve heard,” Mr. McAllister assured me. “And I’ve heard ’em all. Now, Mr. Urmstone, he’s a grand one for the sins, but he’s on in years, and gone a bit hoarse now, so as ye need to be right up front to hear him—and that’s a bit dangerous, ye ken, as it’s the folk in front whose sins he’s likely to start in upon. The New Light fella, though, he’s nay much; no voice to him.”

He dismissed the unfortunate preacher with the scorn of a connoisseur.

“Mr. Woodmason’s all right; a bit stiff in his manner—an Englishman, aye?—but verra faithful about turning up for services, for all he’s well stricken in years. Now, young Mr. Campbell from the Barbecue Church—”

“This wean’s fair starved, ma’am,” the girl holding Jemmy put in. Evidently so; he was red in the face and keening. “Will I give him a bit o’ parritch, maybe?”

I gave a quick glance at the pot over the fire; it was bubbling, so likely well-cooked enough to kill most germs. I pulled out the horn spoon I carried in my pocket, which I could be sure was reasonably clean, and handed it to the girl.

“Thank you so much. Now, this Mr. Caldwell—he wouldn’t by chance be a Presbyterian, would he?”

Mr. McAllister looked surprised, then beamed at my perceptivity.

“Why, so he is, indeed! Ye’ll have heard of him, then, Mrs. Fraser?”

“I think perhaps my son-in-law is acquainted with him,” I said, with a tinge of irony.

Georgiana laughed.

“I should say your grandson kens him, at least.” She nodded at the chain, draped across her husband’s broad palm. “Bairns that size are just like magpies; they’ll seize upon any shiny bawbee they see.”

“So they do,” I said slowly, staring at the silver links and their dangling fob. That put something of a different complexion on the matter. If Jemmy had picked Mr. Caldwell’s pocket, it had obviously been done sometime before Jamie had arranged the impromptu christening.

But Bree and Roger had known about Father Kenneth’s arrest and the possible cancelation of their wedding well before that; there would have been plenty of time for them to make other plans while Jamie and I were dealing with Rosamund, Ronnie, and the other assorted crises. Plenty of time for Roger to go and talk to Mr. Caldwell, the Presbyterian minister—with Jemmy along for the ride.

And as soon as Roger had confirmed the unlikelihood of the priest’s performing any marriages tonight, Brianna had disappeared on a vague “errand.” Well, if Father Kenneth had wanted to interview a Presbyterian groom before marrying him, I supposed Mr. Caldwell might be allowed the same privilege with a prospective Papist bride.

Jemmy was devouring porridge with the single-mindedness of a starving piranha; we couldn’t leave quite yet. That was just as well, I thought; let Brianna break the news to her father that she would have her wedding after all—priest or no priest.

I spread out my skirt to dry the damp hem, and the firelight glowed from both my rings. A strong disposition to laugh bubbled up inside me, at the thought of what Jamie would say when he found out, but I suppressed it, not wanting to explain my amusement to the McAllisters.

“Shall I take that?” I said instead to Mr. McAllister, with a nod toward the watch chain. “I think perhaps I shall be seeing Mr. Caldwell a little later.”

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