The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 96

   

A nudge on my blind side caused me to open that eye, revealing Jamie, holding two brimming cups of something. Hot and thirsty as I was, I didn’t mind what it was, so long as it was wet. Fortunately it was cider, and I gulped it.

“Drink it like that, and ye’ll founder, Sassenach,” he said, disposing of his own cider in precisely similar fashion. He was flushed and sweating from the dancing, but his eyes sparkled as he grinned at me.

“Piffle,” I said. With a bit of cider as ballast, the room had quit spinning, and I felt cheerful, if hot. “How many people are in here, do you think?”

“Sixty-eight, last time I counted.” He leaned back beside me, viewing the milling throng with an expression of deep content. “They come in and out, though, so I canna be quite sure. And I didna count the weans,” he added, moving slightly to avoid collision as a trio of small boys caromed through the crowd and shot past us, giggling.

Heaps of fresh hay were stacked in the shadows at the sides of the barn; the small bodies of children too wee to stay awake were draped and curled among them like so many barn kittens. The flicker of lantern light caught a gleam of silky red-gold; Jemmy was sound asleep in his blanket, happily lulled by the racket. I saw Bree come out of the dancing and lay her hand briefly on him to check, then turn back. Roger put out a hand to her, dark and smiling, and she took it, laughing as they whirled back into the stamping mass.

People did come in and out—particularly small groups of young people, and courting couples. It was freezing and frost-crisp outside, but the cold made cuddling with a warm body that much more appealing. One of the older MacLeod boys passed near us, his arm round a much younger girl—one of old Mr. Guthrie’s granddaughters, I thought; he had three of them, all much alike to look at—and Jamie said something genial to him in Gaelic that made his ears go red. The girl was already pink with dancing, but went crimson in the face.

“What did you say to them?”

“It doesna bear translation,” he said, putting a hand in the small of my back. He was pulsing with heat and whisky, alight with a flame of joy; looking at him was enough to kindle my own heart. He saw that, and smiled down at me, the heat of his hand burning through the cloth of my gown.

“D’ye want to go outside for a moment, Sassenach?” he said, his voice pitched low and rich with suggestion.

“Well, since you mention it . . . yes,” I said. “Maybe not just yet, though.” I nodded past him, and he turned to see a cluster of elderly ladies sitting on a bench against the wall, all viewing us with the bright-eyed curiosity of a flock of crows. Jamie waved and smiled at them, making them all burst into pink-faced giggles, and turned back to me with a sigh.

“Aye, well. In a bit, then—after the first-footing, maybe.”

The latest spate of dancing came to an end, and there was a general surge in the direction of the tub of cider, presided over by Mr. Wemyss at the far end of the barn. The dancers clustered round it like a horde of thirsty wasps, so that all that was visible of Mr. Wemyss was the top of his head, fair hair almost white under the glow of the lanterns.

Seeing it, I looked round for Lizzie, to see whether she was enjoying the party. Evidently so; she was holding court on a hay bale, surrounded by four or five gawky boys, who were all behaving very much like the dancers round the cider tub.

“Who’s the big one?” I asked Jamie, calling his attention to the small gathering with a nod of my head. “I don’t recognize him.” He glanced over, squinting slightly.

“Oh,” he said, relaxing, “that will be Jacob Schnell. He’s ridden over from Salem with a friend; they came with the Muellers.”

“Really.” Salem was a good long ride; nearly thirty miles. I wondered whether the attraction had been the festivities alone. I looked for Tommy Mueller, whom I had privately marked out as a possible match for Lizzie, but didn’t see him in the crowd.

“Do you know anything about this Schnell lad?” I asked, giving the boy in question a critical look. He was a year or two older than the other boys dancing attendance on Lizzie, and quite tall. Plain-featured but good-natured-looking, I thought; heavy-boned, and with a thickness through the middle that foretold the development of a prosperous paunch in middle age.

“I dinna ken the lad himself, but I’ve met his uncle. It’s a decent family; I think his father’s a cobbler.” We both looked automatically at the young man’s shoes; not new, but very good quality, and with pewter buckles, large and square in the German fashion.

Young Schnell appeared to have gained an advantage; he was leaning close, saying something to Lizzie, whose eyes were fixed on his face, a slight frown of concentration wrinkling the skin between her fair brows as she tried to make out what he was saying. Then she worked it out, and her face relaxed in laughter.

“I dinna think so.” Jamie shook his head, a slight frown on his face as he watched them. “The family’s Lutheran; they wouldna let the lad marry a Catholic—and it would break Joseph’s heart to send the lass to live so far away.”

Lizzie’s father was deeply attached to her; and having lost her once, he was unlikely to give her so far away in marriage as to lose sight of her again. Still, I thought that Joseph Wemyss would do almost anything to insure his daughter’s happiness.

“He might go with her, you know.”

Jamie’s expression grew bleak at the thought, but he nodded in reluctant acknowledgment.

“I suppose so. I should hate to lose him; though I suppose Arch Bug might—”

Shouts of “Mac Dubh!” interrupted him.

“Come on, a Sheumais ruaidh, show him how!” Evan called from the far end of the barn, and jerked his bow authoritatively.

There had been a break in the dancing, to give the musicians time to breathe and have a drink, and in the interim, some of the men had been trying their hand at sword dancing, which could be done with only the accompaniment of pipes or to a single drum.

I had been paying little attention to this, only hearing the shouts of encouragement or derision from that end of the barn. Evidently, most of those present were no great hand at the sport—the latest gentleman to try it had tripped over one of the swords and fallen flat; he was being helped to his feet, red-faced and laughing, returning genial insults with his friends as they beat the hay and dirt from his clothes.

“Mac Dubh, Mac Dubh!” Kenny and Murdo shouted in invitation, beckoning, but Jamie waved them off, laughing.

“Nay, I havena done that in more time than I—”

“Mac Dubh! Mac Dubh! Mac Dubh!” Kenny was thumping his bodhran, chanting in rhythm, and the group of men around him were joining in. “Mac Dubh! Mac Dubh! Mac Dubh!”

Jamie cast me a brief look of helpless appeal, but Ronnie Sinclair and Bobby Sutherland were already heading purposefully toward us. I stepped away, laughing, and they seized him each by an arm, smothering his protests with raucous shouts as they hustled him into the center of the floor.

Applause and shouts of approval broke out as they deposited him in a clear space, where the straw had been trampled into the damp earth far enough to make a hard-packed surface. Seeing that he had no choice, Jamie drew himself up and straightened his kilt. He caught my eye, rolled an eye in mock resignation, and began to take off his coat, waistcoat, and boots, as Ronnie scrambled to lay out the two crossed broadswords at his feet.

Kenny Lindsay began to tap gently on his bodhran, hesitating between the beats, a sound of soft suspense. The crowd murmured and shifted in anticipation. Clad in shirt, kilt, and stockinged feet, Jamie bowed elaborately, turning sunwise to dip four times, to each of the “airts” in turn. Then he stood upright, and moved to take his place, standing just above the crossed swords. His hands lifted, fingers pointing stiff above his head.

There was an outburst of clapping nearby, and I saw Brianna put two fingers in her mouth and give an earsplitting whistle of approbation—to the marked shock of the people standing next to her.

I saw Jamie glance at Bree, with a faint smile, and then his eyes found mine again. The smile stayed on his lips, but there was something different in his expression; something rueful. The beat of the bodhran began to quicken.

A Highland sword dance was done for one of three reasons. For exhibition and entertainment, as he was about to do it now. For competition, as it was done among the young men at a Gathering. And as it first was done, as an omen. Danced on the eve of a battle, the skill of the dancer foretold success or failure. The young men had danced between crossed swords, the night before Prestonpans, before Falkirk. But not before Culloden. There had been no campfires the night before that final fight, no time for bards and battle songs. It didn’t matter; no one had needed an omen, then.

Jamie closed his eyes for a moment, bent his head, and the beat of the drum began to patter, quick and fast.

I knew, because he had told me, that he had first done the sword dance in competition, and then—more than once—on the eve of battles, first in the Highlands, then in France. The old soldiers had asked him to dance, had valued his skill as reassurance that they would live and triumph. For the Lindsays to know his skill, he must also have danced in Ardsmuir. But that was in the Old World, and in his old life.

He knew—and had not needed Roger to tell him—that the old ways had changed, were changing. This was a new world, and the sword dance would never again be danced in earnest, seeking omen and favor from the ancient gods of war and blood.

His eyes opened, and his head snapped up. The tipper struck the drum with a sudden thunk! and it began with a shout from the crowd. His feet struck down on the pounded earth, to the north and the south, to the east and the west, flashing swift between the swords.

His feet struck soundless, sure on the ground, and his shadow danced on the wall behind him, looming tall, long arms upraised. His face was still toward me, but he didn’t see me any longer, I was sure.

The muscles of his legs were strong as a leaping stag’s beneath the hem of his kilt, and he danced with all the skill of the warrior he had been and still was. But I thought he danced now only for the sake of memory, that those watching might not forget; danced, with the sweat flying from his brow as he worked, and a look of unutterable distance in his eyes.

PEOPLE WERE STILL TALKING of it when we adjourned to the house, just before midnight, for stovies, beer, and cider, before the first-footing.

Mrs. Bug brought out a basket of apples, and gathered all the young unmarried girls together in a corner of the kitchen, where—with much giggling and glancing over shoulders toward the young men—each peeled a fruit, keeping the peeling in one piece. Each girl tossed her peel behind her, and the group all whirled round to cluster and exclaim over the fallen strip and see what was the shape of the letter it made.

Apple peelings being by their nature fairly circular, there were a good many “C”s, “G”s, and “O”s discovered—good news for Charley Chisholm, and Young Geordie Sutherland—and much speculation as to whether “Angus Og” might be the meaning of an “O” or not, for Angus Og MacLeod was a canty lad, and much liked, while the only “Owen” was an elderly widower, about five feet tall, and with a large wen on his face.

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