The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 129

   

“Gussie?” I called toward the women in the corner with the first name that came to mind.

The knot of slaves clung together for a moment, then reluctantly unraveled, and Gussie stepped out, a pale brown moth of a girl from Jamaica, small under a turban of blue calico.

“Madam?” She kept her eyes on mine, steadfastly away from the still form on the floor.

“I’m taking Doctor Fentiman downstairs. I’ll have some of the men come to . . . to take care of Betty. This . . .” I made a small gesture toward the mess on the floor, and she nodded, still shocked, but obviously relieved to have something to do.

“Yes, Madam. We do that, quick.” She hesitated, eyes darting round the room, then looked back at me. “Madam?”

“Yes?”

“Someone must go—tell that girl name Phaedre what’s gone with Betty. You tell her, please?”

Startled, I looked, and realized that Phaedre was not among the slaves in the corner. Of course; as Jocasta’s body servant, she would sleep downstairs, near her mistress, even on her wedding night.

“Yes,” I said, uncertainly. “Of course. But—”

“This Betty that girl’s mama,” Gussie said, seeing my incomprehension. She swallowed, tears swimming in her soft brown eyes. “Somebody—can I go, Madam? Can I go tell her?”

“Please,” I said, and stepped back, motioning her to go. She tiptoed past the body, then darted for the door, callused bare feet thumping softly on the boards.

Dr. Fentiman had begun to emerge from his shock. He pulled away from me and stooped toward the floor, making vague groping gestures. I saw that his medical kit had been upset in the struggle; bottles and instruments were strewn across the floor in a litter of metal and broken glass.

Before he could retrieve his kit, though, there was a brief commotion on the stair, and Duncan came into the room, Jamie on his heels. I noticed with some interest that Duncan was still wearing his wedding clothes, though minus coat and waistcoat. Had he been to bed at all? I wondered.

He nodded to me, but his eyes went at once to Betty, now sprawled on the floor, bloody shift crumpled round her broad, splayed thighs. One breast spilled from the torn fabric, heavy and slack as a half-filled pouch of meal. Duncan blinked several times. Then he wiped the back of his hand across his mustache, and took a visible breath. He bent to pluck a quilt from the carnage and laid it gently over her.

“Help me with her, Mac Dubh,” he said.

Seeing what he was about, Jamie knelt and gathered the dead woman up into his arms. Duncan drew himself upright, and turned his face toward the women in the corner.

“Dinna fash yourselves,” he said quietly. “I shall see her taken care of.” There was an unusual note of authority in his voice that made me realize that in spite of his natural modesty, he had accepted the fact that he was master here.

The men left with their burden, and I heard Dr. Fentiman give a deep sigh. It felt as though the whole attic sighed with him; the atmosphere was still thick with stench and sorrow, but the shock of violent death was dissipating.

“Leave it,” I said to Fentiman, seeing him move again to pick up a bottle lying on the floor. “The women will take care of it.” Not waiting for argument, I took him firmly by the elbow and marched him out the door and down the stair.

People were up; I caught the sounds of rattling dishes from the dining room, and the faint scent of sausages. I couldn’t take him through the public rooms in his current state, nor up to the bedrooms; he was undoubtedly sharing a room with several other men, any of whom might still be abed. For lack of a better idea, I took him outside, pausing to snatch another of the maids’ cloaks from the pegs by the door and wrap it round his shoulders.

So Betty was—or had been—Phaedre’s mother. I hadn’t known Betty well, but I did know Phaedre, and felt grief for her tighten my throat. There was nothing I could do for her just now, though; but perhaps I could help the doctor.

Silent with shock, he followed me obediently as I led him down the side path by the lawns, shielded from view by Hector Cameron’s white-marble mausoleum and its growth of ornamental yew bushes. There was a stone bench by the river, half-hidden under a weeping willow. I doubted anyone would be patronizing it at this hour of the morning.

No one was, though two wine goblets sat on the bench, stained red with beeswing, abandoned remnants of the night’s festivities. I wondered briefly whether someone had been having a romantic rendezvous, and was reminded suddenly of my own midnight tryst. Damn it, I still didn’t know for sure who the owner of those hands had been!

Pushing the nagging question away with the wineglasses, I sat down, gesturing to Doctor Fentiman to join me. It was chilly, but the bench was in full sun at this hour, and the heat was warm and comforting on my face. The Doctor was looking better for the fresh air; vestiges of color had come back into his cheeks, and his nose had resumed its normal roseate hue.

“Feeling a bit better, are you?”

He nodded, hunching the cloak around his narrow shoulders.

“I am, I thank you, Mrs. Fraser.”

“Rather a shock, wasn’t it?” I asked, employing my most sympathetic bedside manner.

He closed his eyes, and shook his head briefly.

“Shocked . . . yes, very shocked,” he muttered. “I would never have . . .” He trailed off, and I let him sit quiet for a moment. He would need to talk about it, but best to let him take it at his own pace.

“It was good of you to come so quickly,” I said, after a bit. “I see they called you from your bed. Had she grown suddenly worse, then?”

“Yes. I could have sworn she was on the mend last night, after I bled her.” He rubbed his face with both hands, and emerged blinking, eyes very bloodshot. “The butler roused me just before dawn, and I found her once again complaining of griping in the guts. I bled her again, and then administered a clyster, but to no avail.”

“A clyster?” I murmured. Clysters were enemas; a favorite remedy of the time. Some were fairly harmless; others were positively corrosive.

“A tincture of nicotiana,” he explained, “which I find answers capitally in most cases of dyspepsia.”

I made a noncommittal noise in response. Nicotiana was tobacco; I supposed a strong solution of that, administered rectally, would probably dispose promptly of a case of pinworms, but I didn’t think it would do much for indigestion. Still, it wouldn’t make anyone bleed like that, either.

“Extraordinary amount of bleeding,” I said, putting my elbows on my knees and resting my chin in my hands. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it.” That was true. I was curious, turning over various possibilities in my mind, but no diagnosis quite fit.

“No.” Doctor Fentiman’s sallow cheeks began to show spots of red. “I—if I had thought . . .”

I leaned toward him, and laid a consoling hand on his arm.

“I’m sure you did all that anyone could possibly do,” I said. “She wasn’t bleeding at all from the mouth when you saw her last night, was she?”

He shook his head, hunching deeper into his cloak.

“No. Still, I blame myself, I really do.”

“One does,” I said ruefully. “There’s always that sense that one should have been able to do something more.”

He caught the depth of feeling in my voice and turned toward me, looking surprised. The tension in him relaxed a little, and the red color began to fade from his cheeks.

“You have . . . a most remarkably sympathetic understanding, Mrs. Fraser.”

I smiled at him, not speaking. He might be a quack, he might be ignorant, arrogant, and intemperate—but he had come at once when called, and had fought for his patient to the best of his ability. That made him a physician, in my book, and deserving of sympathy.

After a moment, he put his hand over mine. We sat in silence, watching the river go by, dark brown and turbid with silt. The stone bench was cold under me, and the morning breeze kept sticking chilly fingers under my shift, but I was too preoccupied to take much note of such minor discomforts. I could smell the drying blood on his clothes, and saw again the scene in the attic. What on earth had the woman died of?

I prodded him gently, asking tactful questions, extracting what details he had gleaned, but they were not helpful. He was not an observant man at the best of times, and it had been very early and the attic dark. He grew easier with the talking, though, gradually purging himself of that sense of personal failure that is the frequent price of a physician’s caring.

“I hope Mrs. Cameron—Mrs. Innes, I mean—will not feel that I have betrayed her hospitality,” he said uneasily.

That seemed a rather odd way to put it. On the other hand . . . Betty had been Jocasta’s property. I supposed that beyond any sense of personal failure, Dr. Fentiman was also contemplating the possibility that Jocasta might blame him for not preventing Betty’s death, and try to claim recompense.

“I’m sure she’ll realize that you did all you could,” I said soothingly. “I’ll tell her so, if you like.”

“My dear lady.” Doctor Fentiman squeezed my hand with gratitude. “You are as kind as you are lovely.”

“Do you think so, Doctor?”

A male voice spoke coldly behind me, and I jumped, dropping Dr. Fentiman’s hand as though it were a high-voltage wire. I whirled on the bench to find Phillip Wylie, leaning against the trunk of the willow tree with a most sardonic expression on his face.

“‘Kind’ is not the word that springs most immediately to mind, I must say. ‘Lewd,’ perhaps. ‘Wanton,’ most certainly. But ‘lovely,’ yes—I’ll give you that.”

His eyes raked me from head to toe with an insolence that I would have found absolutely reprehensible—had it not suddenly dawned on me that Dr. Fentiman and I had been sitting hand in hand in what could only be called a compromising state of dishabille, both still in our nightclothes.

I stood up, drawing my dressing gown round me with great dignity. His eyes were fixed on my br**sts—with a knowing expression? I wondered. I folded my arms under my br**sts, lifting my bosom defiantly.

“You forget yourself, Mr. Wylie,” I said, as coldly as possible.

He laughed, but not as though he thought anything were funny.

“I forget myself? Have you not forgotten something, Mrs. Fraser? Such as your gown? Do you not find it a trifle cold, dressed like that? Or do the good doctor’s embraces warm you sufficiently?”

Doctor Fentiman, as shocked as I was by Wylie’s appearance, had got to his feet and now pushed his way in front of me, his thin cheeks mottled with fury.

“How dare you, sir! How do you have the infernal presumption to speak to a lady in such fashion? Were I armed, sir, I should call you out upon the instant, I swear it!”

Wylie had been staring boldly at me. At this, his gaze shifted to Fentiman, and he saw the blood staining the doctor’s legs and breeches. His hot-eyed scowl grew less certain.

“I—has something happened, sir?”

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