The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 58

   

The honey. I stopped, pursing my lips. I had nearly twenty gallons of purified honey, and four large stone jars of honeycomb, gleaned from my hives and waiting to be rendered and made into beeswax candles. It was all kept in the walled cave that served as stable, in order to keep safe from bears. It wasn’t safe from the children who had been deputed to feed the cows and pigs in the stable, though. I hadn’t seen any telltale sticky fingers or faces yet, but it might be as well to take some preventative steps.

Between meat, grain, and the small dairy, it looked as though no one would starve this winter. My concern now was the lesser but still important threat of vitamin deficiency. I glanced at the chestnut grove, its branches now completely bare. It would be a good four months before we saw much of fresh greenery, though I did have plenty of turnips and cabbage still in the ground.

The root cellar was reassuringly well-stocked, heady with the earthy smell of potatoes, the tang of onions and garlic, and the wholesome, bland scent of turnips. Two large barrels of apples stood at the back—with the prints of several sets of childish feet leading up to them, I saw.

I glanced up. Enormous clusters of wild scuppernong grapes had been hung from the rafters, drying slowly into raisins. They were still there, but the lower, more reachable bunches had been reduced to sprays of bare stems. Perhaps I needn’t worry about outbreaks of scurvy, then.

I wandered back toward the house, trying to calculate how many provisions should be sent with Jamie and his militia, how much left for the consumption of the wives and children. Impossible to say; that would depend in part on how many men he raised, and on what they might bring with them. He was appointed Colonel, though; the responsibility of feeding the men of his regiment would be primarily his, with reimbursement—if it ever came—to be paid later by appropriation of the Assembly.

Not for the first time, I wished heartily that I knew more. How long might the Assembly be a functional body?

Brianna was out by the well, walking round and round it with a meditative look furrowing her brows.

“Pipe,” she said, without preliminaries. “Do people make metal piping now? The Romans did, but—”

“I’ve seen it in Paris and Edinburgh, being used to carry rain off roofs,” I offered. “So it exists. I’m not sure I’ve seen any in the Colonies, though. If there is any, it will be terribly expensive.” Beyond the simplest of things, like horseshoes, all ironmongery had to be imported from Britain, as did all other metal goods like copper, brass, and lead.

“Hmm. At least they’ll know what it is.” She narrowed her eyes, calculating the slope of land between well and house, then shook her head and sighed. “I can make a pump, I think. Getting water into the house is something else.” She yawned suddenly, and blinked, eyes watering slightly in the sunlight. “God, I’m so tired, I can’t think. Jemmy squawked all night and just when he finally conked out, the Muellers showed up—I don’t think I slept at all.”

“I recall the feeling,” I said, with sympathy—and grinned.

“Was I a very cranky baby?” Brianna asked, grinning back.

“Very,” I assured her, turning toward the house. “And where is yours?”

“He’s with—”

Brianna stopped dead, clutching my arm.

“What—” she said. “What in the name of God is that?”

I turned to look, and felt a spasm of shock, deep in the pit of my stomach.

“It’s quite evident what it is,” I said, walking slowly toward it. “The question is—why?”

It was a cross. Rather a big cross, made of dried pine boughs, stripped of their twigs and bound together with rope. It was planted firmly at the edge of the dooryard, near the big blue spruce that guarded the house.

It stood some seven feet in height, the branches slender, but solid. It was not bulky or obtrusive—and yet its quiet presence seemed to dominate the dooryard, much as a tabernacle dominates a church. At the same time, the effect of the thing seemed neither reverent nor protective. In fact, it was bloody sinister.

“Are we having a revival meeting?” Brianna’s mouth twitched, trying to make a joke of it. The cross made her as uneasy as it did me.

“Not that I’ve heard of.” I walked slowly round it, looking up and down. Jamie had made it—I could tell that by the quality of the workmanship. The branches had been chosen for straightness and symmetry, carefully trimmed, the ends tapered. The cross piece had been neatly notched to fit the upright, the rope binding crisscrossed with a sailor’s neatness.

“Maybe Da’s starting his own religion.” Brianna lifted a brow; she recognized the workmanship, too.

Mrs. Bug appeared suddenly round the corner of the house, a bowl of chicken feed in her hands. She stopped dead at sight of us, her mouth opening immediately. I braced myself instinctively for the onslaught, and heard Brianna snicker under her breath.

“Och, there ye are, ma’am! I was just sayin’ to Lizzie as how it was a shame, a mortal shame it is, that those spawn should be riotin’ upstairs and doon, and their nasty leavings scattered all about the hoose, and even in Herself’s own stillroom, and she said to me, did Lizzie, she said—”

“In my surgery? What? Where? What have they done?” Forgetting the cross, I was already hastening toward the house, Mrs. Bug hard on my heels, still talking.

“I did catch twa o’ them wee de’ils a-playin’ at bowls in there with your nice blue bottles and an apple, and be sure I boxed their ears sae hard for it I’m sure they’re ringin’ still, the wicked creeturs, and them a-leavin’ bits of good food to rot and go bad, and—”

“My bread!” I had reached the front hall, and now flung open the door of the surgery to find everything within spick-and-span—including the countertop where I had laid out my most recent penicillin experiments. It now lay completely bare, its oaken surface scoured to rawness.

“Nasty it was,” Mrs. Bug said from the hall behind me. She pressed her lips together with prim virtue. “Nasty! Covered wi’ mold, just covered, all blue, and—”

I took a deep breath, hands clenched at my sides to avoid throttling her. I shut the surgery door, blotting out the sight of the empty counter, and turned to the tiny Scotswoman.

“Mrs. Bug,” I said, keeping my voice level with great effort, “you know how much I appreciate your help, but I did ask you not to—”

The front door swung open and crashed into the wall beside me.

“Ye wretched auld besom! How dare ye to lay hands on my weans!”

I swung round to find myself nose-to-nose with Mrs. Chisholm, face flushed with fury and armed with a broom, two red-faced toddlers clinging to her skirts, their cheeks smeared with recent tears. She ignored me completely, her attention focused on Mrs. Bug, who stood in the hallway on my other side, bristling like a diminutive hedgehog.

“You and your precious weans!” Mrs. Bug cried indignantly. “Why, if ye cared a stitch for them, ye’d be raisin’ them proper and teachin’ them right from wrong, not leavin’ them to carouse about the hoose like Barbary apes, strewin’ wreck and ruin from attic to doorstep, and layin’ their sticky fingers on anything as isna nailed to the floor!”

“Now, Mrs. Bug, really, I’m sure they didn’t mean—” My attempt at peacemaking was drowned out by steam-whistle shrieks from all three Chisholms, Mrs. Chisholm’s being by far the loudest.

“Who are you, to be callin’ my bairns thieves, ye maundering auld nettercap!” The aggrieved mother waved the broom menacingly, moving from side to side as she tried to get at Mrs. Bug. I moved with her, hopping back and forth in an effort to stay between the two combatants.

“Mrs. Chisholm,” I said, raising a placating hand. “Margaret. Really, I’m sure that—”

“Who am I?” Mrs. Bug seemed to expand visibly, like rising dough. “Who am I? Why, I’m a God-fearin’ woman and a Christian soul! Who are you to be speakin’ to your elders and betters in such a way, you and your evil tribe a-traipsin’ the hills in rags and tatters, wi’out sae much as a pot to piss in?”

“Mrs. Bug!” I exclaimed, whirling round to her. “You mustn’t—”

Mrs. Chisholm didn’t bother trying to find a rejoinder to this, but instead lunged forward, broom at the ready. I flung my arms out to prevent her shoving past me; finding herself foiled in her attempt to swat Mrs. Bug, she instead began poking at her over my shoulder, jabbing wildly with the broom as she tried to skewer the older woman.

Mrs. Bug, obviously feeling herself safe behind the barricade of my person, was hopping up and down like a Ping-Pong ball, her small round face bright red with triumph and fury.

“Beggars!” she shouted, at the top of her lungs. “Tinkers! Gypsies!”

“Mrs. Chisholm! Mrs. Bug!” I pleaded, but neither paid the least attention.

“Kittock! Mislearnit pilsh!” bellowed Mrs. Chisholm, jabbing madly with her broom. The children shrieked and yowled, and Mrs. Chisholm—who was a rather buxom woman—trod heavily on my toe.

This came under the heading of more than enough, and I rounded on Mrs. Chisholm with fire in my eye. She shrank back, dropping the broom.

“Ha! Ye pert trull! You and—”

Mrs. Bug’s shrill cries behind me were suddenly silenced, and I whirled round again to see Brianna, who had evidently run round the house and come in through the kitchen, holding the diminutive Mrs. Bug well off the floor, one arm round her middle, the other hand firmly pressed across her mouth. Mrs. Bug’s tiny feet kicked wildly, her eyes bulging above the muffling hand. Bree rolled her eyes at me, and retreated through the kitchen door, carrying her captive.

I turned round to deal with Mrs. Chisholm, only to see the flick of her homespun gray skirt, disappearing hastily round the corner of the doorstep, a child’s wail receding like a distant siren. The broom lay at my feet. I picked it up, went into the surgery, and shut the door behind me.

I closed my eyes, hands braced on the empty counter. I felt a sudden, irrational urge to hit something—and did. I slammed my fist on the counter, pounded it again and again with the meaty side of my hand, but it was built so solidly that my blows made scarcely any sound, and I stopped, panting.

What on earth was the matter with me? Annoying as Mrs. Bug’s interference was, it was not critical. Neither was Mrs. Chisholm’s maternal pugnacity—she and her little fiends would be gone from the house sooner or later. Sooner, I hoped.

My heart had begun to slow a little, but prickles of irritation still ran over my skin like nettle rash. I tried to shake it off, opening the big cupboard to assure myself that neither Mrs. Bug’s nor the children’s depredations had harmed anything truly important.

No, it was all right. Each glass bottle had been polished to a jewellike gleam—the sunlight caught them in a blaze of blue and green and crystal—but each had been put back exactly in its place, each neatly written label turned forward. The gauzy bundles of dried herbs had been shaken free of dust, but carefully hung back on their nails.

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