The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 97

   

I had taken Jemmy up to put him to bed, and after depositing him limp and snoring in his cradle, came down in time to see Lizzie cast her peeling.

“‘C’!” chorused two of the Guthrie girls, almost knocking heads as they bent to look.

“No, no, it’s a ‘J’!”

Appealed to as the resident expert, Mrs. Bug bent down, eyeing the strip of red peel with her head on one side, like a robin sizing up a likely worm.

“A ‘J’ it is, to be sure,” she ruled, straightening up, and the group burst out in giggles, turning as one to stare at John Lowry, a young farmer from Woolam’s Mill, who peered over his shoulder at them in total bewilderment.

I caught a flash of red from the corner of my eye, and turned to see Brianna in the doorway to the hall. She tilted her head, beckoning me, and I hurried to join her.

“Roger’s ready to go out, but we couldn’t find the ground salt; it wasn’t in the pantry. Do you have it in your surgery?”

“Oh! Yes, I have,” I said guiltily. “I’d been using it to dry snakeroot, and forgot to put it back.”

Guests packed the porches and lined the wide hallway, spilling out of the kitchen and Jamie’s study, all talking, drinking, and eating, and I threaded my way through the crush after her toward my surgery, exchanging greetings as I ducked brandished cups of cider, stovie crumbs crunching under my feet.

The surgery itself was nearly empty, though; people tended to avoid it, through superstition, painful associations, or simple wariness, and I had not encouraged them to go in, leaving the room dark, with no fire burning. Only one candle was burning in the room now, and the only person present was Roger, who was poking among the bits and pieces I’d left on the counter.

He looked up as we entered, smiling. Still faintly flushed from the dancing, he had put his coat back on and draped a woolen scarf round his neck; his cloak lay over the stool beside him. Custom held that the most fortunate “firstfoot” on a Hogmanay was a tall and handsome dark-haired man; to welcome one as the first visitor across the threshold after midnight brought good fortune to the house for the coming year.

Roger being beyond argument the tallest—and quite the best-looking—dark man available, he had been elected to be firstfoot, not only for the Big House, as folk called it, but for those homes nearby. Fergus and Marsali and the others who lived near had already rushed off to their houses, to be ready to greet their firstfoot when he should come.

A red-haired man, though, was frightful ill luck as a firstfoot, and Jamie had been consigned to his study, under the riotous guard of the Lindsay brothers, who were to keep him safely bottled up ’til after midnight. There were no clocks nearer than Cross Creek, but old Mr. Guthrie had a pocket watch, even older than himself; this instrument would declare the mystic moment when one year yielded to the next. Given the watch’s propensity for stopping, I doubted that this would be more than a symbolic pronouncement, but that was quite enough, after all.

“Eleven-fifty,” Brianna declared, popping into the surgery after me, her own cloak over her arm. “I just checked Mr. Guthrie’s watch.”

“Plenty of time. Are ye coming with me, then?” Roger grinned at Bree, seeing her cloak.

“Are you kidding? I haven’t been out after midnight in years.” She grinned back at him, swirling the cloak around her shoulders. “Got everything?”

“All but the salt.” Roger nodded toward a canvas bag on the counter. A firstfoot was to bring gifts to the house: an egg, a faggot of wood, a bit of salt—and a bit of whisky, thus insuring that the household would not lack for necessities during the coming year.

“Right. Where did I—oh, Christ!” Swinging open the cupboard door to search for the salt, I was confronted by a pair of glowing eyes, glaring out of the darkness at me.

“Good grief.” I put a hand over my chest, to keep my heart from leaping out, waving the other hand weakly at Roger, who had sprung up at my cry, ready to defend me. “Not to worry—it’s just the cat.”

Adso had taken refuge from the party, bringing along the remains of a freshly killed mouse for company. He growled at me, evidently thinking I meant to snatch this treat for myself, but I pushed him crossly aside, digging the small bag of ground salt out from behind his furry hindquarters.

I closed the cupboard door, leaving Adso to his feast, and handed Roger the salt. He took it, laying down the object he had had in his hand.

“Where did ye get that wee auld wifie?” he asked, nodding toward the object as he put the salt away in his bag. I glanced at the counter, and saw that he had been examining the little pink stone figure that Mrs. Bug had given me.

“Mrs. Bug,” I replied. “She says it’s a fertility charm—which is certainly what it looks like. It is very old, then?” I’d thought it must be, and seeing Roger’s interest confirmed the impression.

He nodded, still looking at the thing.

“Very old. The ones I’ve seen in museums are dated at thousands of years.” He traced the bulbous outlines of the stone with a reverent forefinger.

Brianna moved closer to see, and without thinking, I set a hand on her arm.

“What?” she said, turning her head to smile at me. “I shouldn’t touch it? Do they work that well?”

“No, of course not.”

I took my hand away, laughing, but feeling rather self-conscious. At the same time, I became aware that I would really rather she didn’t touch it, and was relieved when she merely bent down to examine it, leaving it on the counter. Roger was looking at it, too—or rather, he was looking at Brianna, his eyes fixed on the back of her head with an odd intensity. I could almost imagine that he was willing her to touch the thing, as strongly as I was willing her not to.

Beauchamp, I said silently to myself, you have had much too much to drink tonight. All the same, I reached out by impulse and scooped the figure up, dropping it into my pocket.

“Come on! We have to go!” The odd mood of the moment abruptly broken, Brianna straightened up and turned to Roger, urging him.

“Aye, right. Let’s go, then.” He slung the bag over his shoulder and smiled at me, then took her arm and they disappeared, letting the surgery door close behind them.

I put out the candle, ready to follow them, and then stopped, suddenly reluctant to go back at once to the chaos of the celebration.

I could feel the whole house in movement, throbbing around me, and light flowed under the door from the hall. Just here, though, it was quiet. In the silence, I felt the weight of the little idol in my pocket, and pressed it, hard and lumpy against my leg.

There is nothing special about January the first, save the meaning we give to it. The ancients celebrated a new year at Imbolc, at the beginning of February, when the winter slackens and the light begins to come back—or the date of the spring equinox, when the world lies in balance between the powers of dark and light. And yet I stood there in the dark, listening to the sound of the cat chewing and slobbering in the cupboard, and felt the power of the earth shift and stir beneath my feet as the year—or something—prepared to change. There was noise and the sense of a crowd nearby, and yet I stood alone, while the feeling rose through me, hummed in my blood.

The odd thing was that it was not strange in the slightest. It was nothing that came from outside me, but only the acknowledgment of something I already possessed, and recognized, though I had no notion what to call it. But midnight was fast approaching. Still wondering, I opened the door, and stepped into the light and clamor of the hall.

A shout from across the hall betokened the arrival of the magic hour, as announced by Mr. Guthrie’s timepiece, and the men came jostling out of Jamie’s office, joking and pushing, faces turned expectantly toward the door.

Nothing happened. Had Roger decided to go to the back door, given the crowd in the kitchen? I turned to look down the hall, but no, the kitchen doorway was crowded with faces, all looking back at me in expectation.

Still no knock at the door, and there was a small stir of restiveness in the hallway, and a lull in conversation, one of those awkward silences when no one wants to talk for fear of sudden interruption.

Then I heard the sound of footsteps on the porch, and a rapid knock, one-two-three. Jamie, as householder, stepped forward to fling the door open and bid the firstfoot welcome. I was near enough to see the look of astonishment on his face, and looked quickly to see what had caused it.

Instead of Roger and Brianna, two smaller figures stood on the porch. Skinny and bedraggled, but definitely dark-haired, the two Beardsley twins stepped shyly in together, at Jamie’s gesture.

“A happy New Year to you, Mr. Fraser,” said Josiah, in a bullfrog croak. He bowed politely to me, still holding his brother by the arm. “We’ve come.”

THE GENERAL AGREEMENT was that dark-haired twins were a most fortunate omen, obviously bringing twice the luck of a single firstfoot. Nonetheless, Roger and Bree—who had met the twins hesitating in the yard, and sent them up to the door—went off to do their best for the other houses on the Ridge, Bree being severely warned not to enter any house until Roger had crossed the threshold.

Fortunate or not, the appearance of the Beardsleys caused a good deal of talk. Everyone had heard of the death of Aaron Beardsley—the official version, that is, which was that he had perished of an apoplexy—and the mysterious disappearance of his wife, but the advent of the twins caused the whole affair to be raked up and talked over again. No one knew what the boys had been doing between the militia’s expedition and New Year’s; Josiah said only “wanderin’” in his raspy croak, when asked—and his brother Keziah said nothing at all, obliging everyone to talk about the Indian trader and his wife until exhaustion caused a change of subject.

Mrs. Bug took the Beardsleys at once under her wing, taking them off to the kitchen to be washed, warmed, and fed. Half the partygoers had gone home to be firstfooted; those who would not leave ’til morning split into several groups. The younger people returned to the barn to dance—or to seek a bit of privacy among the hay bales—the older ones sat to talk of memories by the hearth, and those who had overindulged in dance or whisky curled up in any convenient corner—and quite a few inconvenient ones—to sleep.

I found Jamie in his study, leaning back in his chair with his eyes closed, a drawing of some kind on the table before him. He wasn’t asleep, and opened his eyes when he heard my step.

“Happy New Year,” I said softly, and bent to kiss him.

“A guid New Year to you, a nighean donn.” He was warm and smelled faintly of beer and dried sweat.

“Still want to go outside?” I asked, with a glance at the window. The moon had set long since, and the stars burned faint and cold in the sky. The yard outside was bleak and black.

“No,” he said frankly, rubbing a hand over his face. “I want to go to bed.” He yawned and blinked, trying to smooth down the disheveled bits of hair sticking up on the top of his head. “I want you to come, too, though,” he added, generously.

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