The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 84

   

The flow of entries was soothing, as peaceful as the summer days they recorded. She felt the knot of tension between her shoulder blades beginning to relax, and her mind began to loosen and stretch, ready to seek a way out of her difficulties.

20 July—Barley in the lower field as high as my stocking-tops. A healthy heifer calf born to red cow soon after midnight. All well. An excellent day.

21 July—Rode to Muellers’. Exchanged one jar honeycomb for leather bridle in poor repair (but can be mended). Home well after dark, in consequence of seeing a twilight hatch rising upon the pond near Hollis’s Gap. Stopped to fish, and caught a string of ten fine trout. Six eaten for supper; the rest will do for breakfast.

22 July—My grandson has a rash, though my wife declares it of no moment. The white sow has broken through her pen again and escaped into the forest. I am in two minds whether I shall pursue her or only express sympathy for the unfortunate predator that first encounters her. Her temper is similar to that of my daughter at the moment, the latter having slept little these past few nights . . .

Brianna leaned forward, frowning at the page.

. . . in consequence of the infant’s screaming, which my wife says is the colic and will pass. I trust she is right. Meanwhile, I have settled Brianna and the child in the old cabin, which is some relief to us in the house, if not to my poor daughter. The white sow ate four of her last litter before I could prevent her.

“Why, you bloody bastard!” she said. She was familiar with the white sow in question, and not flattered by the comparison. Jemmy, alarmed by her tone, stopped crooning and dropped his toast, his mouth beginning to quiver.

“No, no, it’s all right, sweetie.” She got up and scooped him into her arms, swaying gently to soothe him. “Shh, it’s all right. Mummy is just talking to Grandpa, that’s all. You didn’t hear that word either, okay? Shh, shh.”

Jemmy was reassured, but leaned out from her arms, reaching after his discarded meal with small grunts of anxiety. She stooped and picked it up, eyeing the half-dissolved object with distaste. The crust was not only stale and wet, but had acquired a light coating of what seemed to be cat hair.

“Ick. You don’t really want that, do you?”

Evidently he did, and was persuaded only with difficulty to accept a large iron bull’s ring—used for leading male animals by the nose, she noted with some irony—from the shelf in lieu of it. A brief nibble confirmed the desirability of the nose ring, though, and he settled down in her lap to single-minded gnawing, allowing her to reread the conclusion of the offensive entry.

“Hmm.” She leaned back, shifting Jemmy’s weight more comfortably. He could sit up easily now, though it still seemed incredible that his noodle-neck could support the round dome of his head. She regarded the ledger broodingly.

“It’s a thought,” she said to Jemmy. “If I shift the old bi—I mean, Mrs. Chisholm—to our cabin, it will get her and her horrible little monsters out of everyone’s hair. Then . . . hmm. Mrs. Aberfeldy and Ruthie could go in with Lizzie and her father, if we move the trundle from Mama and Da’s room in there. The Bugs get their privacy back, and Mrs. Bug stops being an evil-minded old . . . er . . . anyway, then I suppose you and I could sleep in Mama and Da’s room, at least ’til they come back.”

She hated to think of moving from the cabin. It was her home, her private place, her family’s place. She could go there and close the door, leaving the furor here behind. Her things were there; the half-built loom, the pewter plates, the pottery jug she had painted—all the small, homely objects with which she had made the space her own.

Beyond the sense of possession and peace, she had an uncomfortable sense of something like superstition about leaving it. The cabin was the home Roger had shared with her; to leave it, however temporarily, seemed somehow an admission that he might not return to share it again.

She tightened her grip on Jemmy, who ignored her in favor of concentration on his toy, his fat little fists shiny with drool where he grasped the ring.

No, she didn’t want to give up her cabin at all. But it was an answer, and a logical one. Would Mrs. Chisholm agree? The cabin was much more crudely built than the big house, and lacking its amenities.

Still, she was pretty sure Mrs. Chisholm would accept the suggestion. If ever she’d seen someone whose motto was, “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven . . .” Despite her trouble, she felt a small bubble of laughter rise beneath her stays.

She reached out and flipped the ledger closed, then tried to replace it on the stack from which she’d taken it. One-handed, though, and encumbered by Jemmy, she couldn’t quite reach, and the book slipped off, falling back onto the table.

“Rats,” she muttered, and scooted forward on her chair, reaching to pick it up again. Several loose sheets had fallen out, and she stuffed these back as tidily as she could with her free hand.

One, plainly a letter, had the remnants of its wax seal still attached. Her eye caught the impression of a smiling half-moon, and she paused. That was Lord John Grey’s seal. It must be the letter he had sent in September, in which he described his adventures hunting deer in the Dismal Swamp; her father had read it to the family several times—Lord John was a humorous correspondent, and the deer hunt had been beset by the sort of misfortunes that were no doubt uncomfortable to live through, but which made picturesque recounting afterward.

Smiling in memory, she flipped the letter open with her thumb, looking forward to seeing the story again, only to find that she was looking at something quite different.

13 October, Anno Domini 1770

Mr. James Fraser

Fraser’s Ridge, North Carolina

My dear Jamie,

I woke this Morning to the sound of the Rain which has beat upon us for the last Week, and to the gentle clucking of several Chickens, who had come to roost upon my Bedstead. Rising under the Stare of numerous beady Eyes, I went to make Inquiry as to this Circumstance, and was informed that the River has risen so far under the Impetus of the recent Rain as to have undermined both the Necessary House and the Chicken Coop. The contents of the latter were rescued by William (my Son, whom you will recall), and two of the Slaves, who swept the dispossessed Fowl out of the passing Floodwaters with Brooms. I cannot say whose was the Notion to sequester the hapless feathered Flood Victims in my Sleeping Chamber, but I hold certain Suspicions in this regard.

Resorting to use of my Chamber Pot (I could wish that the Chickens shared this Facility, they are distressing incontinent Fowl), I dressed and ventured forth to see what might be salvaged. Some few Boards and the shingled Roof of the Chicken Coop remain, but my Privy, alas, has become the Property of King Neptune—or whatever minor water Deity presides over so modest a Tributary as our River.

I pray you will suffer no Concern for us, though; the House is at some distance from the River, and safely placed upon a Rise of Ground, such as to render us quite safe from even the most incommodious flooding. (The Necessary had been dug by the old homestead, and we had not yet attempted a new structure more convenient; this minor disaster, by affording us the Necessary opportunity for rebuilding, thus may prove a blessing in disguise.)

Brianna rolled her eyes at the pun, but smiled nonetheless. Jemmy dropped his ring and began at once to whine for it. She stooped to pick it up, but stopped halfway down, riveted by the words at the beginning of the next paragraph.

Your letter mentions Mr. Stephen Bonnet, and inquires whether I have news or knowledge of him. I have met with him, you will collect, but have unfortunately no Memory whatever of the Encounter, not even to Recalling of his Appearance, though as you know, I carry a small Hole in my Head, as a singular Memento of the occasion. (You may inform your Lady Wife that I am healed well, with no further Symptoms of Discomfort than the occasional Headache. Beyond this, the Silver Plate with which the Opening is covered is subject to sudden chill when the Weather is cold, which tends to make my left Eye water, and to cause a great Discharge of Snot, but this is of no consequence.)

As I thus share your Interest in Mr. Bonnet and his Movements, I have long since had Inquiries dispersed among such Acquaintance as I have near the Coast, since the Descriptions of his Machinations cause me to believe the man is most like to be found there (this is a comforting Notion, given the Great Distance between the Coast and your remote Eyrie). The River being navigable to the Sea, however, I had some Thought that the River Captains and Water Scallywags who now and again grace my Dinner Table might at some Point bear me Word of the man.

I am not pleased by the Obligation to report that Bonnet still resides among the Living, but both Duty and Friendship compel me to impart such Particulars of him as I have obtained. These are sparse; the Wretch appears sensible of his criminal Situation, so far as to render him subtle in his Movements until now.

Jemmy was kicking and squawking. As though in a trance, she stooped, holding him, and picked up the ring, her eyes still fixed on the letter.

I had heard little of him, save a Report at one Point that he had repaired to France—good News. However, two Weeks past I had a Guest, one Captain Liston (“Captain” being no more than a title of courtesy; he claims service with the Royal Navy, but I will stake a Hogshead of my best Tobacco [a sample of which you will find accompanying this Missive—and if you do not, I would be obliged to hear of it, since I do not altogether trust the Slave by whom I send it] that he has never so much as smelled the Ink on a Commission, let alone the Reek of the Bilges) who gave me a more recent—and highly disagreeable—History of the man Bonnet.

Finding himself at large in the Port of Charleston, Liston said that he fell in with some Companions of low Aspect, who invited him to accompany them to a Cockfight, held in the Innyard of an Establishment called the Devil’s Glass. Among the Rabble there was a Man notable for the fineness of his Dress, and the Freedom with which he spent his Coin—Liston heard this man referred to as Bonnet, and was told by the Landlord that this Bonnet had the name of a Smuggler upon the Outer Banks, being Popular with the Merchants of the coastal Towns in North Carolina, though much less so with the Authorities, who were Helpless to deal with the Man by reason of his Business and the dependence of the Towns of Wilmington, Edenton, and New Bern upon his Trade.

Liston took little further Note of Bonnet (he said) until an Altercation rose over a Wager upon the Fighting. Hot Words were exchanged, and nothing would do save Honor be satisfied by the drawing of Blood. Nothing loath, the Spectators at once began to wager upon the Outcome of the human Contest, in the same manner as that of the fighting Fowl.

One combatant was the man Bonnet, the other a Captain Marsden, a half-pay Army Captain known to my Guest as a good Swordsman. This Marsden, feeling himself the injured Party, damned Bonnet’s eyes, and invited the Smuggler to accommodate him upon the Spot, an Offer at once accepted. Wagers ran heavy upon Marsden, his Reputation being known, but it was soon clear that he had met his Match and more in Bonnet. Within no more than a few moments, Bonnet succeeded in disarming his Opponent, and in Wounding him so grievously in the Thigh that Marsden sank down upon his Knees and yielded to his Opponent—having no Choice in the Matter at that Point, to be sure.

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