The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 49

   

“Are you talking to the rat?” I began to crawl toward the foot of the bed, but he motioned me back, shaking his head, while still making the chirping sound.

I waited, with some impatience. Within a minute, he made a grab, evidently catching whatever it was, for he gave a small exclamation of satisfaction. He stood up, smiling, a gray, furry shape clutched by the nape, dangling like a tiny purse from his fingers.

“Here’s your wee ratten, Sassenach,” he said, and gently deposited a ball of gray fur on the coverlet. Huge eyes of a pale celadon green stared up at me, unblinking.

“Well, goodness,” I said. “Wherever did you come from?” I extended a finger, very slowly. The kitten didn’t move. I touched the edge of a tiny gray-silk jaw, and the big green eyes disappeared, going to slits as it rubbed against my finger. A surprisingly deep purr rumbled through its miniature frame.

“That,” Jamie said, with immense satisfaction, “is the present I meant to give ye, Sassenach. He’ll keep the vermin from your surgery.”

“Well, possibly very small vermin,” I said, examining my new present dubiously. “I think a large cockroach could carry him—is it a him?—off to its lair, let alone a mouse.”

“He’ll grow,” Jamie assured me. “Look at his feet.”

He—yes, it was a he—had rolled onto his back and was doing an imitation of a dead bug, paws in the air. Each paw was roughly the size of a broad copper penny, small enough by themselves, but enormous by contrast with the tiny body. I touched the minuscule pads, an immaculate pink in their thicket of soft gray fur, and the kitten writhed in ecstasy.

A discreet knock came at the door, and I snatched the sheet up over my bosom as the door opened and Mr. Wemyss’s head poked in, his hair sticking up like a pile of wheat straw.

“Er . . . I hope all is well, sir?” he asked, blinking shortsightedly. “My lass woke me, sayin’ as she thought there was a skelloch, like, and then we heard a bit of a bang, like—” His eyes, hastily averted from me, went to the scar of raw wood in the whitewashed wall, left by Jamie’s poker.

“Aye, it’s fine, Joseph,” Jamie assured him. “Only a wee cat.”

“Oh, aye?” Mr. Wemyss squinted toward the bed, his thin face breaking into a smile as he made out the blot of gray fur. “A cheetie, is it? Well, and he’ll be a fine help i’ the kitchen, I’ve nae doubt.”

“Aye. Speakin’ of kitchens, Joseph—d’ye think your lassie might bring up a dish of cream for the baudrons here?”

Mr. Wemyss nodded and disappeared, with a final avuncular smile at the kitten.

Jamie stretched, yawned, and scrubbed both hands vigorously through his hair, which was behaving with even more reckless abandon than usual. I eyed him, with a certain amount of purely aesthetic appreciation.

“You look like a woolly mammoth,” I said.

“Oh? And what is a mammoth, besides big?”

“A sort of prehistoric elephant—you know, the animals with the long trunks?”

He squinted down the length of his body, then looked at me quizzically.

“Well, I thank ye for the compliment, Sassenach,” he said. “Mammoth, is it?” He thrust his arms upward and stretched again, casually arching his back, which—quite inadvertently, I didn’t think—enhanced any incidental resemblances that one might note between the half-engorged morning anatomy of a man, and the facial adornments of a pachyderm.

I laughed.

“That’s not precisely what I meant,” I said. “Stop waggling; Lizzie’s coming in any minute. You’d better put your shirt on or get back in bed.”

The sound of footsteps on the landing sent him diving under the quilts, and sent the little cat scampering up the sheet in fright. In the event, it was Mr. Wemyss himself who had brought the dish of cream, sparing his daughter a possible sight of Himself in the altogether.

The weather being fine, we had left the shutters open the night before. The sky outside was the color of fresh oysters, moist and pearly gray. Mr. Wemyss glanced at it, blinked and nodded at Jamie’s thanks, and toddled back to his bed, thankful for a last half hour’s sleep before the dawn.

I disentangled the kitten, who had taken refuge in my hair, and set him down by the bowl of cream. I didn’t suppose he could ever have seen a bowl of cream in his life, but the smell was enough—in moments, he was whisker-deep, lapping for all he was worth.

“He’s a fine thrum to him,” Jamie remarked approvingly. “I can hear him from here.”

“He’s lovely; wherever did you get him?” I nestled into the curve of Jamie’s body, enjoying his warmth; the fire had burned far down during the night, and the air in the room was chilly, sour with ash.

“Found him in the wood.” Jamie yawned widely, and relaxed, propping his head on my shoulder to watch the tiny cat, who had abandoned himself to an ecstasy of gluttony. “I thought I’d lost him when Gideon bolted—I suppose he’d crept into one of the saddlebags, and came up wi’ the other things.”

We lapsed into a peaceful stupor, drowsily cuddled in the warm nest of our bed, as the sky lightened, moment by moment, and the air came alive with the voices of waking birds. The house was waking, too—a baby’s wail came from below, followed by the stir and shuffle of rising, the murmur of voices. We should rise, too—there was so much to be done—and yet neither of us moved, each reluctant to surrender the sense of quiet sanctuary. Jamie sighed, his breath warm on my bare shoulder.

“A week, I think,” he said quietly.

“Before you must go?”

“Aye. I can take that long to settle things here, and speak to the men from the Ridge. A week then, to pass through the country between the Treaty Line and Drunkard’s Creek and call a muster—then I’ll bring them here to drill. If Tryon should call up the militia, then . . .”

I lay quiet for a moment, my hand wrapped round Jamie’s, his loose fist curled against my breast.

“If he calls, I’ll go with you.”

He kissed the back of my neck.

“D’ye wish it?” he said. “I dinna think there will be need. Neither you nor Bree know of any fighting will be done here now.”

“That only means that if anything will happen, it won’t be a huge battle,” I said. “This—the Colonies—it’s a big place, Jamie. And two hundred years of things happening—we wouldn’t know about the smaller conflicts, especially ones that happened in a different place. Now, in Boston—” I sighed, squeezing his hand.

I wouldn’t know a great deal about events in Boston myself, but Bree would; growing up there, she had been exposed in school to a good bit of local and state history. I had heard her telling Roger things about the Boston Massacre—a small confrontation between citizens and British troops that had taken place the past March.

“Aye, I suppose that’s true,” he said. “Still, it doesna seem as though it will come to anything. I think Tryon only means to frighten the Regulators into good behavior.”

This was in fact likely. However, I was quite aware of the old adage—“Man proposes and God disposes”—and whether it was God or William Tryon in charge, heaven only knew what might happen in the event.

“Do you think so?” I asked. “Or only hope so?”

He sighed, and stretched his legs, his arm tightening about my waist.

“Both,” he admitted. “Mostly I hope. And I pray. But I do think so, too.”

The kitten had completely emptied the dish of cream. He sat down with an audible thump on his tiny backside, rubbed the last of the delicious white stuff from his whiskers, then ambled slowly toward the bed, sides bulging visibly. He sprang up onto the coverlet, burrowed close to me, and fell promptly asleep.

Perhaps not quite asleep; I could feel the small vibration of his purring through the quilt.

“What do you think I should call him?” I mused aloud, touching the tip of the soft, wispy tail. “Spot? Puff? Cloudy?”

“Foolish names,” Jamie said, with a lazy tolerance. “Is that what ye were wont to call your pussie-baudrons in Boston, then? Or England?”

“No. I’ve never had a cat before,” I admitted. “Frank was allergic to them—they made him sneeze. And what’s a good Scottish cat name, then—Diarmuid? McGillivray?”

He snorted, then laughed.

“Adso,” he said, positively. “Call him Adso.”

“What sort of name is that?” I demanded, twisting to look back at him in amazement. “I’ve heard a good many peculiar Scottish names, but that’s a new one.”

He rested his chin comfortably on my shoulder, watching the kitten sleep.

“My mother had a wee cat named Adso,” he said, surprisingly. “A gray cheetie, verra much like this one.”

“Did she?” I laid a hand on his leg. He rarely spoke of his mother, who had died when he was eight.

“Aye, she did. A rare mouser, and that fond of my mother; he didna have much use for us bairns.” He smiled in memory. “Possibly because Jenny dressed him in baby-gowns and fed him rusks, and I dropped him into the millpond, to see could he swim. He could, by the way,” he informed me, “but he didna like to.”

“I can’t say I blame him,” I said, amused. “Why was he called Adso, though? Is it a saint’s name?” I was used to the peculiar names of Celtic saints, from Aodh—pronounced OOH—to Dervorgilla, but hadn’t heard of Saint Adso before. Probably the patron saint of mice.

“Not a saint,” he corrected. “A monk. My mother was verra learned—she was educated at Leoch, ye ken, along with Colum and Dougal, and could read Greek and Latin, and a bit of the Hebrew as well as French and German. She didna have so much opportunity for reading at Lallybroch, of course, but my father would take pains to have books fetched for her, from Edinburgh and Paris.”

He reached across my body to touch a silky, translucent ear, and the kitten twitched its whiskers, screwing up its face as though about to sneeze, but didn’t open its eyes. The purr continued unabated.

“One of the books she liked was written by an Austrian, from the city of Melk, and so she thought it a verra suitable name for the kit.”

“Suitable . . . ?”

“Aye,” he said, nodding toward the empty dish, without the slightest twitch of lip or eyelid. “Adso of Milk.”

A slit of green showed as one eye opened, as though in response to the name. Then it closed again, and the purring resumed.

“Well, if he doesn’t mind, I suppose I don’t,” I said, resigned. “Adso it is.”

19

THE DEVIL YE KEN

A WEEK LATER, we—that is, the women—were engaged in the backbreaking business of laundry when Clarence the mule let out his clarion announcement that company was coming. Little Mrs. Aberfeldy leaped as though she’d been stung by a bee, and dropped an armload of wet shirts in the dirt of the yard. I could see Mrs. Bug and Mrs. Chisholm opening their mouths in reproach, and took the opportunity to wipe my hands on my apron and hurry round to the front, to greet whatever visitor might be approaching.

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