The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 120

   

“Your kindness does you great credit, Mrs. Fraser,” the doctor pronounced, straightening up, but keeping hold of my hand—to steady himself, I thought. “There is no need of your troubling yourself, however. Mrs. Cameron is an old and valued acquaintance; I am quite content to attend her slave.” He smiled benignly, blinking in an attempt to bring me into focus.

I could hear the maid’s breathing, deep and stertorous, but quite regular. I itched to get my hands on her pulse. I inhaled deeply, as unobtrusively as possible. Above the pungent scent of Dr. Fentiman’s wig, which had evidently been treated with nettle powder and hyssop against lice, and a strong fog of ancient sweat and tobacco from the doctor’s body, I caught the sharp copper scent of fresh blood, and the older reek of caked, decayed blood from the inside of his case. No, Fentiman didn’t clean his blades.

Beyond that, I could easily smell the alcoholic miasma that Jamie and Brianna had described, but I couldn’t tell how much of it came from Betty, and how much from Fentiman. If there was any hint of laudanum in the mix, I would have to get closer to detect it, and do it fast, before the volatile aromatic oils could completely evanesce.

“How exceedingly kind of you, Doctor,” I said, smiling insincerely. “I’m sure my husband’s aunt is most grateful for your efforts. But surely a gentleman such as yourself—I mean, you must have many more important demands upon your attention. I’m sure that Ulysses and myself can see to the woman’s nursing; you’ll surely be missed by your companions.” Especially those eager to win a few pounds off you at cards, I thought. They’ll want a chance before you sober up!

Rather to my surprise, the doctor did not at once succumb to the flattery of this speech. Releasing my hand, he smiled at me with an insincerity equal to my own.

“Oh, no, not at all, my dear. I assure you, no nursing is required here. It is no more than a simple case of overindulgence, after all. I have administered a strong emetic; as soon as it shall have its effect, the woman may safely be left. Do return to your pleasures, my dear lady; there is no need for you to risk soiling such a lovely gown, no need at all.”

Before I could remonstrate, there came a heavy gagging noise from the bed, and Doctor Fentiman turned at once, snatching up the chamber pot from beneath the bed.

In spite of his own impairment, he was commendably attentive to the patient. I would myself have hesitated to administer an emetic to a comatose patient, but I had to admit that it wasn’t an unreasonable thing to do in a case of suspected poisoning, even if the poison was something as commonly accepted as alcohol—and if Dr. Fentiman had perhaps detected the same thing Jamie had . . .

The slave had eaten heavily; no surprise, with so much food available for the festivities. That in itself might have saved her life, I thought, slowing the absorption of alcohol—and anything else—into her bloodstream. The vomitus reeked of mingled rum and brandy, but I did think I smelled the ghost of opium as well, faint and sickly sweet, among the other odors.

“What sort of emetic did you use?” I asked, bending over the woman and thumbing open one eye. The iris stared upward, brown and glassy as an agate marble, the pupil shrunk to a pinpoint. Ha, definitely opium.

“Mrs. Fraser!” Dr. Fentiman glared at me in irritation, his wig fallen half askew over one ear. “Do you go, please, and cease interfering! I am greatly occupied, and have no time to indulge your fancies. You, sir—remove her!” He waved a hand at Ulysses and turned back to the bed, shoving his wig into place as he did so.

“Why, you little—” I choked off the intended epithet, seeing Ulysses take an uncertain step toward me. He clearly hesitated to remove me bodily, but it was just as clear that he would obey the Doctor’s orders in preference to mine.

Trembling with fury, I swept around and left the room.

Jamie was waiting for me at the foot of the stair. Seeing my face as I descended, he took my arm at once and led me out into the yard.

“That—that—” Words failed me.

“Officious worm?” he supplied helpfully. “Unsonsie sharg?”

“Yes! Did you hear him?! The gall of him, that jumped-up butcher, that bloody little . . . squirt! No time to indulge my fancies! How dare he?”

Jamie made a guttural noise, indicating sympathetic outrage.

“Shall I go up and knivvle him?” he inquired, hand on his dirk. “I could gut him for ye—or just beat his face in, if ye’d rather.”

Attractive as this prospect sounded, I was forced to decline.

“Well . . . no,” I said, bringing my choler under control with some difficulty. “No, I don’t think you’d better do that.”

The echo of our similar conversation regarding Phillip Wylie struck me. It struck Jamie, too; I saw one corner of his long mouth curl with wry humor.

“Damn,” I said ruefully.

“Aye,” he agreed, reluctantly taking his hand off his dirk. “It doesna look as though I shall be allowed to spill anyone’s blood today, does it?”

“You want to, do you?”

“Verra much,” he said, dryly. “So do you, Sassenach, from the looks of it.”

I couldn’t argue with that; I should have liked nothing better than to disembowel Dr. Fentiman with a blunt spoon. Instead, I rubbed a hand over my face, and took a deep breath, bringing my feelings back into some semblance of order.

“Is he likely to kill the woman?” Jamie asked, jerking his chin back toward the house.

“Not immediately.” Bleeding and purging were highly objectionable and possibly dangerous, but not likely to be instantly fatal. “Oh—you were probably right about the laudanum.”

Jamie nodded, pursing his lips thoughtfully.

“Well, then. The important thing is to speak wi’ Betty, once she’s in a condition to make sense. Ye dinna think Fentiman’s the sort to stand watch over a sick slave’s bed?”

Now it was my turn to think, but finally I shook my head.

“No. He was doing his best for her,” I admitted reluctantly. “But so far as I could tell, she’s in no great danger. She should be watched, but only in case she should vomit and choke in her sleep, and I doubt he’d hang about to do that, even if he thinks of it.”

“Well, then.” He stood in thought for a moment, the breeze lifting strands of red hair from the crown of his head. “I’ve sent Brianna and her man to poke about and see whether any of the guests is snoring in a corner. I’ll go and do the same for the slaves. Can ye maybe steal up to the attic when Fentiman’s gone, and talk to Betty as soon as she wakes?”

“I imagine so.” I would have gone up in any case, if only to assure myself of Betty’s welfare. “Don’t take too long, though; they’re almost ready for the wedding.”

We stood for a moment, looking at each other.

“Dinna fash yourself, Sassenach,” he said softly, and tucked a wisp of hair behind my ear. “The doctor’s a wee fool; dinna mind him.”

I touched his arm, thankful for his comfort and wishing to offer him the same solace for bruised feelings.

“I am sorry about Phillip Wylie,” I said. I realized at once that no matter what my intentions, the effect of this reminder had not been soothing. The soft curve of his mouth tightened, and he moved back, his shoulders stiffening.

“Dinna fash yourself about him, either, Sassenach,” he said. His voice was still soft, but there was nothing even slightly reassuring in it. “I shall settle wi’ Mr. Wylie, by and by.”

“But—” I broke off, helpless. Evidently there was nothing I could say or do that would make matters right again. If Jamie felt his honor offended—and he plainly did, regardless of what I said—then Wylie would pay for it, and that was all about it.

“You are the most pigheaded man I have ever met,” I said crossly.

“Thank you,” he said, with a small bow.

“That was not a compliment!”

“Aye, it was.” And with another bow, he turned on his heel and strode off on his errand.

46

QUICKSILVER

TO JAMIE’S RELIEF, the wedding went off with no further difficulties. The ceremony—conducted in French—took place in Jocasta’s small sitting room upstairs, attended only by the bridal pair, the priest, himself and Claire as witnesses, and Brianna and her young man. Jemmy had been present, too, but scarcely counted, as he had slept through the service.

Duncan had been pale, but composed, and Jamie’s aunt had spoken her vows in a firm voice, with no evidence of hesitation. Brianna, recently wed herself and sentimental in consequence, had looked on with misty approbation, squeezing her lad’s arm tight, and Roger Mac looking down at her tender-eyed. Even knowing what he did regarding the nature of this particular marriage, Jamie had felt moved himself by the sacrament, and had lifted Claire’s fingers to his lips, brushing a brief kiss across them as the fat little priest intoned the blessing.

Then, the formalities concluded and the wedding contracts signed, they had all come down to join the guests at a lavish wedding supper, under the light of torches that lined the terrace, their long flames streaming over tables that groaned with the abundance of River Run.

He took a glass of wine from one of the tables, and leaned back against the low terrace wall, feeling the tension of the day drain away down his spine. One down, then.

The maid Betty was still out like a brained ox, but safe enough for the present. No one else had been found poisoned, so it was likely she’d taken the stuff herself. Auld Ninian and Barlow were both nearly as legless as the maid, and no threat to each other or anyone else. And whatever Husband and his Regulators were up to, they were doing it at a safe distance. Jamie felt pleasantly light, relieved of responsibility, and ready to turn his mind to recreation.

He raised his glass in automatic salute to Caswell and Hunter, who wandered by, heads together in earnest discourse. He had no wish for political conversation, though; he got up and turned aside, making his way through the crowds near the refreshment tables.

What he really wanted was his wife. Early as it was, the sky was already dark, and a sense of reckless festivity was spreading over the house and terrace as the torches flamed high. The air was cold, and with good wine pulsing through his blood, his hands recalled the warm touch of her under her skirt in the grove, soft and succulent as a split peach in his palm, sun-ripe and juicy.

He wanted her badly.

There. At the end of the terrace, torchlight shining on the waves of her hair, where it swooped up under that ridiculous bit of lace. His fingers twitched; once he got her alone, he’d take out her pins, one by one, and pile up her hair on her head with his hands, for the pleasure of letting it fall again, loose down her back.

She was laughing at something Lloyd Stanhope had said, a glass in her hand. Her face was slightly flushed with wine and the sight of it gave him a pleasurable itch of anticipation.

Bedding her could be anything from tenderness to riot, but to take her when she was a bit the worse for drink was always a particular delight.

Intoxicated, she took less care for him than usual; abandoned and oblivious to all but her own pleasure, she would rake him, bite him—and beg him to serve her so, as well. He loved the feeling of power in it, the tantalizing choice between joining her at once in animal lust, or of holding himself—for a time—in check, so as to drive her at his whim.

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