The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 98


“I’d like nothing better,” I assured him. “What’s that?” I circled round behind him, looking over his shoulder at the drawing, which seemed to be some sort of floor plan, with mathematical calculations scribbled in the margins.

He sat up, looking a trifle more alert.

“Ah. Well, this is wee Roger’s gift to Brianna, for Hogmanay.”

“He’s building her a house? But they—”

“Not her.” He grinned up at me, hands flat on either side of the drawing. “The Chisholms.”

Roger, with a guile that would have become Jamie himself, had scouted round among the settlers on the Ridge, and engineered an agreement between Ronnie Sinclair and Geordie Chisholm.

Ronnie had a large and commodious cabin next to his cooperage. So the agreement was that Ronnie, who was unmarried, would move into the cooper’s shop, where he could easily sleep. The Chisholms would then move into Ronnie’s cabin, to which they would at once—weather allowing—add two rooms, as per the plan on Jamie’s table. In return, Mrs. Chisholm would undertake to make Ronnie’s meals and do his washing. In the spring, when the Chisholms took possession of their own homestead and built a house there, Ronnie would take back his newly enlarged cabin—when the grandness of his improved accommodation might prove sufficient inducement for some young woman to accept his proposal of marriage, he hoped.

“And in the meantime, Roger and Bree get back their cabin, Lizzie and her father stop sleeping in the surgery, and everything is beer and skittles!” I squeezed his shoulders, delighted. “That’s a wonderful arrangement!”

“What’s a skittle?” he inquired, frowning back at me in puzzlement.

“One of a set of ninepins,” I said. “I believe the expression is meant to exemplify a state of general delight with prevailing conditions. Did you do the plan?”

“Aye. Geordie’s no carpenter, and I dinna want the place to fall down about his ears.” He squinted at the drawings, then took a quill from the jar, flipped open the inkwell, and made a small correction to one of the figures.

“There,” he said, dropping the quill. “That’ll do. Wee Roger wants to show it to Bree when they come back tonight; I said I’d leave it out for him.”

“She’ll be thrilled.” I leaned against the back of his chair, massaging his shoulders with my hands. He leaned back, the weight of his head warm against my stomach, and closed his eyes, sighing in pleasure.

“Headache?” I asked softly, seeing the vertical line between his eyes.

“Aye, just a bit. Oh, aye, that’s nice.” I had moved my hands to his head, gently rubbing his temples.

The house had quieted, though I could still hear the rumble of voices in the kitchen. Beyond them, the high sweet sound of Evan’s fiddle drifted through the cold, still air.

“‘My Brown-Haired Maid,’” I said, sighing reminiscently. “I do love that song.” I pulled loose the ribbon binding his plait, and unbraided the hair, enjoying the soft, warm feel of it as I spread it with my fingers.

“It’s rather odd that you don’t have an ear for music,” I said, making small talk to distract him, as I smoothed the ruddy arcs of his brows, pressing just within the edge of the orbit. “I don’t know why, but an aptitude for mathematics often goes along with one for music. Bree has both.”

“I used to,” he said absently.

“Used to what?”

“Have both.” He sighed and bent forward to stretch his neck, his elbows resting on the table. “Oh, Christ. Please. Oh, aye. Ah!”

“Really?” I massaged his neck and shoulders, kneading the tight muscles hard through the cloth. “You mean you used to be able to sing?” It was a family joke; while possessed of a fine speaking voice, Jamie’s sense of pitch was so erratic that any song in his voice was a chant so tuneless that babies were stunned, rather than lulled, to sleep.

“Well, perhaps not that, so much.” I could hear the smile in his voice, muffled by the fall of hair that hid his face. “I could tell one tune from another, though—or say if a song was sung badly or well. Now it’s no but noise or screeching.” He shrugged, dismissing it.

“What happened?” I asked. “And when?”

“Oh, it was before I kent ye, Sassenach. In fact, quite soon before.” He lifted a hand, reaching toward the back of his head. “Do ye recall, I’d been in France? It was on my way back wi’ Dougal MacKenzie and his men, when Murtagh came across ye, wanderin’ the Highlands in your shift. . . .”

He spoke lightly, but my fingers had found the old scar under his hair. It was no more now than a thread, the welted gash healed to a hairbreadth line. Still, it had been an eight-inch wound, laid open with an ax. It had nearly killed him at the time, I knew; he had lain near death in a French abbey for four months, and suffered from crippling headaches for years.

“It was that? You mean that you . . . couldn’t hear music anymore, after you were hurt?”

His shoulders lifted briefly in a shrug.

“I hear no music but the sound of drums,” he said simply. “I’ve the rhythm of it still, but the tune is gone.”

I stopped, my hands on his shoulders, and he turned to look back at me, smiling, trying to make a joke of it.

“Dinna be troubled for it, Sassenach; it’s no great matter. I didna sing well even when I could hear it. And Dougal didna kill me, after all.”

“Dougal? You do think it was Dougal, then?” I was surprised at the certainty in his voice. He had thought at the time that it might perhaps have been his uncle Dougal who had made the murderous attack upon him—and then, surprised by his own men before being able to finish the job, had pretended instead to have found him wounded. But there had been no evidence to say for sure.

“Oh, aye.” He looked surprised, too, but then his face changed, realizing.

“Oh, aye,” he said again, more slowly. “I hadna thought—you couldna tell what he said, could you? When he died, I mean—Dougal.” My hands were still resting on his shoulders, and I felt an involuntary shiver run through him. It spread through my hands and up my arms, raising the hairs all the way to the back of my neck.

As clearly as though the scene took place before me now, I could see that attic room in Culloden House. The bits and pieces of discarded furniture, things toppled and rolling from the struggle—and on the floor at my feet, Jamie crouching, grappling with Dougal’s body as it bucked and strained, blood and air bubbling from the wound where Jamie’s dirk had pierced the hollow of his throat. Dougal’s face, blanched and mottled as his lifeblood drained away, eyes fierce black and fixed on Jamie as his mouth moved in Gaelic silence, saying . . . something. And Jamie’s face, as white as Dougal’s, eyes locked on the dying man’s lips, reading that last message.

“What did he say?” My hands were tight on his shoulders, and his face was turned away as my thumbs rose up under his hair to seek the ancient scar again.

“Sister’s son or no—I would that I had killed you, that day on the hill. For I knew from the beginning that it would be you or me.” He spoke calm and low-voiced, and the very emotionlessness of the words made the shudder pass again, this time from me to him.

It was quiet in the study. The sound of voices in the kitchen had died to a murmur, as though the ghosts of the past gathered there to drink and reminisce, laughing softly among themselves.

“So that was what you meant,” I said quietly. “When you said you’d made your peace with Dougal.”

“Aye.” He leaned back in his chair and reached up, his hands wrapping warmly round my wrists. “He was right, ken. It was him or me, and would have been, one way or the other.”

I sighed, and a small burden of guilt dropped away. Jamie had been fighting to defend me, when he killed Dougal, and I had always felt that death to be laid at my door. But he was right, Dougal; too much lay between them, and if that final conflict had not come then, on the eve of Culloden, it would have been another time.

Jamie squeezed my wrists, and turned in his chair, still holding my hands.

“Let the dead bury the dead, Sassenach,” he said softly. “The past is gone—the future is not come. And we are here together, you and I.”



THE HOUSEHOLD WAS QUIET; it was the perfect opportunity for my experiments. Mr. Bug had gone to Woolam’s Mill, taking the Beardsley twins; Lizzie and Mr. Wemyss had gone to help Marsali with the new mash; and Mrs. Bug, having left a pot of porridge and a platter of toast in the kitchen, was out, too, combing the woods for the half-wild hens, catching them one by one and dragging them in by the feet to be installed in the handsome new chicken coop her husband had built. Bree and Roger sometimes came up to the big house for their breakfast, but more often chose to eat by their own hearth, as was the case this morning.

Enjoying the peace of the empty house, I made up a tray with cup, teapot, cream, and sugar, and took it with me to my surgery, along with my samples. The early morning light was perfect, pouring through the window in a brilliant bar of gold. Leaving the tea to steep, I took a couple of small glass bottles from the cupboard and went outside.

The day was chilly but beautiful, with a clear pale sky that promised a little warmth later in the morning. At the moment, though, it was cold enough that I was glad of my warm shawl, and the water in the horses’ trough was frigid, rimmed with sheets of fragile ice. Not cold enough to kill the microbes, I supposed; I could see long strands of algae coating the boards of the trough, swaying gently as I buckled the thin crust of ice and disturbed the water, scraping one of my bottles along the slimy edge of the trough.

I scooped up further samples of liquid from the springhouse and from a puddle of muddy standing water near the privy, then hurried back to the house to make my trials while the light was still good.

The microscope stood by the window where I had set it up the day before, all gleaming brass and bright mirrors. A few seconds’ work to place droplets on the glass slides I’d laid ready, and I bent to peer through the eyepiece with rapt anticipation.

The ovoid of light bulged, diminished, went out altogether. I squinted, turning the screw as slowly as I could, and . . . there it was. The mirror steadied and the light resolved itself into a perfect pale circle, window to another world.

I watched, enchanted, as the madly beating cilia of a paramecium bore it in hot pursuit of invisible prey. Then a quiet drifting, the field of view itself in constant movement as the drop of water on my slide shifted in its microscopic tides. I waited a moment more, in hopes of spotting one of the swift and elegant Euglena, or even a hydra, but no such luck; only bits of mysterious black-green, daubs of cellular debris and burst algal cells.

I shifted the slide to and fro, but found nothing else of interest. That was all right; I had plenty of other things to look at. I rinsed the glass rectangle in a cup of alcohol, let it dry for a moment, then dipped a glass rod into one of the small beakers I had lined up before my microscope, dabbing a drop of liquid onto the clean slide.