The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 83

   

He was at the moment giving no indication of a potential for future rampage, being half-asleep on the rag rug of Jamie’s study, where Brianna had retired in the faint hope of fifteen minutes’ semi-solitude in which to write. Residual awe of Jamie was sufficient to keep the little warts out of this room, for the most part.

Mrs. Bug had informed eight-year-old Thomas, six-year-old Anthony, and five-year-old Toby Chisholm that Mrs. Fraser was a notable witch; a White Lady, who would undoubtedly turn them into toads on the spot—and no great loss to society, she gave them to understand—should any harm come to the contents of her surgery. That didn’t keep them out—quite the opposite; they were fascinated—but it had so far prevented them breaking much.

Jamie’s inkstand stood to hand on the table; a hollow gourd, neatly corked with a large acorn, with a pottery jar of neatly sharpened turkey quills beside it. Motherhood had taught Brianna to seize random moments; she seized this one, and a quill, flipping open the cover of the small journal in which she kept what she thought of as her private accounts.

Last night I dreamed about making soap. I haven’t made soap yet, myself, but I’d been scrubbing the floor yesterday, and the smell of the soap was still on my hands when I went to bed. It’s a nasty smell, something between acid and ashes, with a horrible faint stink from the hog fat, like something that’s been dead for a long time.

I was pouring water into a kettle of wood ash, to make lye, and it was turning to lye even as I poured. Big clouds of poisonous smoke were coming up from the kettle; it was yellow, the smoke.

Da brought me a big bowl of suet, to mix with the lye, and there were babies’ fingers in it. I don’t remember thinking there was anything strange about this—at the time.

Brianna had been trying to ignore a series of crashing noises from upstairs, which sounded like several persons jumping up and down on a bedstead. These ceased abruptly, succeeded by a piercing scream, which in turn was followed by the sound of flesh meeting flesh in a loud slap, and several more screams of assorted pitches.

She flinched and shut her eyes tight, recoiling as the sounds of conflict escalated. A moment more, and they were thundering down the stairs. With a glance at Jemmy, who had been startled awake, but didn’t seem frightened—my God, he was getting used to it, she thought—she put down the quill and stood up, sighing.

Mr. Bug was there to tend the farm and livestock and repel physical threats; Mr. Wemyss was there to chop firewood, haul water, and generally maintain the fabric of the house. But Mr. Bug was silent, Mr. Wemyss timid; Jamie had left Brianna formally in charge. She was, therefore, the court of appeal, and judge in all conflicts. Herself, if you would.

Herself flung open the study door and glowered at the mob. Mrs. Bug, red in the face—as usual—and brimming with accusation. Mrs. Chisholm, ditto, overflowing with maternal outrage. Little Mrs. Aberfeldy, the color of an eggplant, clutching her two-year-old daughter, Ruth, protectively to her bosom. Tony and Toby Chisholm, both in tears and covered with snot. Toby had a red handprint on the side of his face; little Ruthie’s wispy hair appeared to be oddly shorter on one side than the other. They all began to talk at once.

“. . . Red savages!”

“. . . My baby’s beautiful hair!”

“She started it!”

“. . . Dare to strike my son!”

“We was just playin’ at scalpin’, ma’am . . .”

“. . . EEEEEEEEEEE!”

“. . . and torn a great hole in my feather bed, the wee spawn!”

“Look what she’s done, the wicked auld besom!”

“Look what they’ve done!”

“Look ye, ma’am, it’s only . . .”

“AAAAAAAAAAA!”

Brianna stepped out into the corridor and slammed the door behind her. It was a solid door, and the resultant boom temporarily halted the outcry. On the other side, Jemmy began to cry, but she ignored him for the moment.

She drew a deep breath, prepared to wade into the melee, but then thought better of it. She couldn’t face the thought of the interminable wrangling that would come of dealing with them as a group. Divide and conquer was the only way.

“I am writing,” she declared instead, and looked narrow-eyed from face to face. “Something important.” Mrs. Aberfeldy looked impressed; Mrs. Chisholm affronted; Mrs. Bug astonished.

She nodded coolly to each one in turn.

“I’ll talk to each of you about it later. Aye?”

She opened the door, stepped inside, and shut it very gently on the three pop-eyed faces, then pressed her back against it, closed her eyes, and let out the breath she had been holding.

There was silence outside the door, then a distinct “Hmp!” in Mrs. Chisholm’s voice, and the noise of footsteps going away—one set up the stairs, another toward the kitchen, and a heavier tread into the surgery across the hall. A rush of small footsteps out the front door announced Tony and Toby making their escape.

Jemmy ceased wailing when he saw her, and started sucking his thumb instead.

“I hope Mrs. Chisholm doesn’t know anything about herbs,” she told him, whispering. “I’m sure Grandma keeps poisons in there.” A good thing her mother had taken the box of saws and scalpels with her, at least.

She stood still a moment, listening. No sounds of breaking glass. Perhaps Mrs. Chisholm had merely stepped into the surgery in order to avoid Mrs. Aberfeldy and Mrs. Bug. Brianna sank down in the straight chair by the small table her father used as a desk. Or maybe Mrs. Chisholm was lying in wait, hoping to snare Brianna to listen to her own grievances, as soon as the others were safely out of the way.

Jemmy was now lying on his back with his feet in the air, happily mangling a bit of rusk he had found somewhere. Her journal had fallen to the floor. Hearing Mrs. Chisholm come out of the surgery, she hastily seized the quill, and snatched one of the ledger books from the stack on the desk with the other.

The door opened an inch or two. There was a moment’s silence, during which she bent her head, frowning in exaggerated concentration at the page before her, scratching with an empty quill. The door closed again.

“Bitch,” she said, under her breath. Jemmy made an interrogative noise, and she looked down at him. “You didn’t hear that, all right?”

Jemmy made an agreeable noise and crammed the soggy remnant of his toast into his left nostril. She made an instinctive movement to take it away from him, then stopped herself. She wasn’t in the mood for any more conflict this morning. Or this afternoon, either.

She tapped the black quill thoughtfully on the ledger page. She’d have to do something, and fast. Mrs. Chisholm might have found the deadly nightshade—and she knew Mrs. Bug had a cleaver.

Mrs. Chisholm had the advantage in weight, height, and reach, but Brianna personally would put her money on Mrs. Bug, in terms of guile and treachery. As for poor little Mrs. Aberfeldy, she’d be caught in the crossfire, riddled with verbal bullets. And little Ruthie would likely be bald as an egg before another week was out.

Her father would have sorted them out in nothing flat by the joint exercise of charm and male authority. She gave a small snort of amusement at the thought. Come, he sayeth to one, and she curleth up at his feet, purring like Adso the cat. Go, he sayeth to another, and she goeth promptly out into the kitchen and baketh him a plate of buttered muffins.

Her mother would have seized the first excuse to escape the house—to tend a distant patient or gather medicinal herbs—and left them to fight it out among themselves, returning only when a state of armed neutrality had been restored. Brianna hadn’t missed the look of relief on her mother’s face as she swung up into her mare’s saddle—or the faintly apologetic glance she sent her daughter. Still, neither strategy was going to work for her—though the urge to seize Jemmy and run for the hills was pretty strong.

For the hundredth time since the men had left, she wished passionately that she could have gone with them. She could imagine the bulk of a horse moving under her, the clean, cold air in her lungs, and Roger riding by her side, the sun glowing off his dark hair, and unseen adventure to be faced together, somewhere ahead.

She missed him with a deep ache, like a bruise to the bone. How long might he be gone, if it really came to fighting? She pushed that thought aside, not wanting to look at the thought that came after it; the thought that if it came to fighting, there was a possibility—however faint—that he would come back ill or injured—or wouldn’t come back at all.

“It’s not going to come to that,” she said firmly, aloud. “They’ll be back in a week or two.”

There was a rattling sound as a blast of icy rain struck the window. The weather was turning cold; it would be snowing by nightfall. She shivered, drawing the shawl around her shoulders, and glanced at Jem to see that he was warm enough. His smock was puddled up around his middle, his diaper was plainly damp, and one stocking had fallen off, leaving his small pink foot bare. He appeared not to notice, being absorbed in babbling a song to the bare toes idly flexing overhead.

She looked dubiously at him, but he seemed happy enough—and the brazier in the corner was putting out some heat.

“Okay,” she said, and sighed. She had Jem, and that was that. That being that, the problem was to find some means of dealing with the Three Furies before they drove her crazy or assassinated each other with rolling pin or knitting needle.

“Logic,” she said to Jemmy, sitting up straight in the chair and pointing the quill at him. “There must be a logical way. It’s like that problem where you have to get a cannibal, a missionary, and a goat across a river in a canoe. Let me think about this.”

Jem began trying to get his foot into his crumb-encrusted mouth, despite the clear illogic of the procedure.

“You must take after Daddy,” she told him, tolerantly. She put the quill back in its jar, and started to close the ledger, then stopped, attracted by the sprawling entries. The sight of Jamie’s characteristically messy writing still gave her a faint thrill, remembering her first sight of it—on an ancient deed of sasine, its ink gone pale brown with age.

This ink had been pale brown to start with, but had now darkened, the iron-gall mixture achieving its typical blue-black with exposure to air over a day or so.

It was not so much a ledger, she saw, as a logbook, recording the daily activities of the farm.

16 July—Rec’d six weaned piglets of Pastor Gottfried, in trade for two bottles muscat wine and a goosewing axhead. Have put them in the stable ’til they be grown enough to forage conveniently.

17 July—One of the hives commenced to swarm in the afternoon, and came into the stable. My wife fortunately recaptured the swarm, which she housed in an empty churn. She says Ronnie Sinclair must make her a new one.

18 July—Letter from my aunt, asking advice re sawmill on Grinder’s Creek. Replied, saying I will ride to inspect the situation within the month. Letter sent with R. Sinclair, who goes to Cross Creek with a load of 22 barrels, from which I am to receive half his profit toward payment of debt on cobbler’s tools. Have arranged to deduct cost of new churn from this amount.

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